The retailer says consumers just aren't buying clothes now

By Phil Wahba
May 12, 2016

Kohl’s turnaround has fallen apart.

The department store chain has become the latest retailer to post awful first-quarter results, reporting a 3.9% decline in comparable sales and an 87% drop in net income for the period ended April 30. Comparable sales, which include e-commerce but strip sales at newly opened or closed stores, had been expected by Wall Street analysts to rise 0.4%, according to Consensus Metrix. It stopped a streak of five quarterly increases that indicated Kohl’s was back on track.

Including their large drop on Thursday, Kohl’s shares have lost nearly half their value from their 52-week peak.

Kohl’s dismal results are only the latest from major retailers. Earlier this week, Macy’s m reported a 5.6% drop in its comparable sales, while that retailer’s finance chief admitted the top executives were “scratching our heads” as to why the drop was so severe amid a decent economy. On Monday, Gap Inc gps reported alarming numbers that showed a deepening of the crisis there.

 

What these companies have in common is that they are very reliant on apparel, a category with an industrywide oversupply that has led retailers to discount, discount, discount to win business. What’s more, Amazon.com amzn is making serious inroads into clothing, so much so that Wall Street firm Cowen & Co predicts the online retailer will surpass Macy’s as the top clothing store next year. Many analysts have surmised that with so much sameness out there in fashion, shoppers are spending on experiences and less on clothing, seeing them as a commodity, a position Kohl’s said makes sense.

 

 

“They’re spending money on restaurants and experiences. Until we get more excitement in apparel there – it’s going to remain in my opinion a replenishment market,” Kohl’s Chief Financial Officer Wes McDonald told analysts on a conference call Thursday morning.

Kohl’s approach to private label seems to validate that point of view. Comparable sales for its own brands, which generate roughly half of sales, were down during the quarter, but up for so-called national brands, names like Nike nke that many other retailers carry.

Company executives have admitted that many of Kohl’s private labels were in need of refreshment. It has widely expanded its design office in New York. And in March recently relaunched its flagship Sonoma brand of clothing and housewares, to promising results, executives said. Still, in contrast, Nike comparable sales were up by a mid-teens percentage. Kohl’s other in-house and exclusive brands include Croft & Barrow and Apt 9. Refreshing house brands is at the core of CEO Kevin Mansell’s efforts to turn the retailer around. Other components include opening off-price discount stores and a new chain of smaller, more local Kohl’s stores.

One of the most worrisome aspects of Kohl’s debacle was that the number of transactions per store, a proxy for store traffic, fell 4.8%, a sharper drop than the sales saw decline. (Macy’s reported the same trend.) Services like buy-online, pick up in store only represent 3% of orders so are not much of a traffic-driver yet.

Mansell also noted the pressure of higher wages, something reflected the sharp drop in profits. But to make its stores more inviting, Kohl’s may have to suck it up.

“There wasn’t a lot to get very excited about in our first quarter performance,” Mansell said. He could almost have been parroting many Kohl’s customers thoughts on the store and the clothes it sells.

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