Is Kohl’s Running Out of Time to Turn Things Around?

January 11, 2016, 3:57 PM UTC

Kohl’s (KSS) board of directors fears the retailer might be next on activist investors’ list, according to the Wall Street Journal.

So the department store chain may hire an investment bank to advise it on various alternatives to combat any incursion by such investors, worried that the company’s big stock swoon in the past year could attract unwanted attention. One such option is going private, the Journal wrote.

Kohl’s declined to comment on the report.

Despite concerted efforts to turn its once fast-growing business around, and some success in reaching those goals, Kohl’s shares have fallen 37% in the last year.

Apparently, Wall Street has found the company’s efforts to fend off everyone from (AMZN) to J.C. Penney (JCP) to Target (TGT) insufficient and seems to have little faith in the department store sector in general. (Former best-in-class retailer Macy’s (M) is bleeding sales and closing dozens of stores. It’s also facing enormous pressure from activist investor Starboard to spin off its real estate.)

For years, it seemed all Kohl’s had to do to grow was open stores and the customers would come, attracted to its well-designed, clean, conveniently located stores, and its well-priced items, which were sold with no-frills but competent service. But that success, which saw Kohl’s go from a 90-store regional chain to a national operation with more than 1,000 stores between 1992 and 2009, made it slow to understand the urgency of blending its stores with e-commerce. Kohl’s also grew too reliant on its own higher-margin brands rather than national names like Nike (NEE) that are used to bring shoppers into stores.

The result was a deep slump at a time when Kohl’s should have been benefiting from implosions at Sears (SHLD) and Penney in 2012 and 2013.

About a year-and-a-half ago, Kohl’s CEO Kevin Mansell launched a turnaround effort to get the once fast- growing retailer back on track, a program he called “The Greatness Agenda.” The efforts ranged from an overhaul of Kohl’s beauty sections, to a loyalty program the company says is generating tons of customer data, to a renewed focus on national brands. He also sped up Kohl’s e-commerce efforts and the company has now largely caught up to rivals like Macy’s.

“They’re doing a lot of the right things, but others were doing that years ago,” Edward Jones analyst Brian Yarbrough told Fortune, citing the option to pick up online orders in store as one example.

The “Greatness Agenda” managed to end a five-quarter losing streak, but it’s hard to say it’s been a runaway success: Kohl’s has recorded four quarters in a row of comparable sales growth, but so far this fiscal year, business by that measure is up only 0.8%. (Fourth quarter numbers will come next month.) Kohl’s is still reliant on apparel, an area that is sluggish for almost all retailers. And the areas that it is focusing on to lift sales, like athleisure and improved beauty sections, are also priorities for competitors like Penney and Target, meaning growth will be anything but a cakewalk.


More recently, Kohl’s in November announced plans to expand a chain of outlet stores it has called Off Aisle to compete with T.J. Maxx and Macy’s new Backstage venture. It also announced plans to roll out smaller stores to cater to urban shoppers. But even if those plans work, and some analysts have called them a potential distraction, they would take years to move the needle. (Kohl’s has some 1,100 stores and will be opening the smaller-format stores at a rate of 5 to 10 locations a year.)

Kohl’s modest rebound is hardly enough to placate activist investors who, in the absence of impressive sales growth, might have their eyes on the retailer’s real estate (about one-third of it is owned by Kohl’s) and the cash the company generates.

Given the rough ride activists have given Macy’s, as well as other companies like Olive Garden parent Darden Restaurants (DRI), Kohl’s may be moving to get ahead of a potential fight.