In the wake of the holiday shopping season, the consensus has been that most retailers are still struggling mightily to win their share of consumer spending.
As chain after chain reported underwhelming fourth-quarter results (large retailers like Walmart (WMT) and Kohl’s (KSS) reported meager increases while some had downright bad holiday seasons, like Macy’s (M)), it looked like major stores are still figuring out how to grapple with Amazon.com’s (AMEN) rise, a glut of apparel in the market, and shifting consumer priorities.
Then, in January, an unusually warm winter made people even more bearish about retail, particularly clothiers like Gap (GPS), as the stock market went bonkers, raising fears that consumer confidence would sink. But some optimism crept back in by March as it became clear armageddon was not upon us, not yet at least.
According to a report by Wall Street firm Cowen & Co this week, short interest in retail stocks fell to 11.5% of shares, from 13.6% two months earlier. Short interest refers to the percentage of a company’s shares that are held short, reflecting bearish sentiment toward that particular stock.
The news hasn’t been all doom and gloom, though. Some retailers, long thought to be on their death beds, recently reported decent holiday quarter results. J.C. Penney (JCP), for one, reported best-in-class numbers among its department store peers, sending its shares on a tear in the last month, and bringing its short interest down 7.9 percentage points to 24%. And Abercrombie & Fitch (AND) also surprised Wall Street with decent results, lowering its short interest some 6.5 points. But both remain show-me stories, with short interest still very high in both cases.
On the other hand, previous Wall Street darlings like Nordstrom (JWN) and Restoration Hardware (RH) saw short interest in their stocks remain stubbornly high amid lingering concerns over the financial health of high-end consumers. Gap investors remained in wait-and-see mode as the company promised a turnaround this year. Still, 15% of its shares were shorted in mid-March, compared to an average 11.5% for the sector, according to Cowen.
Not surprisingly, perennial winners like Costco Wholesale (COST) and TJX (TJX), parent of T.J. Maxx, had among the lowest short interest numbers.
“Retail sentiment is improving, but is it sustainable?” Cowen asks in its report. Quarterly earnings reports from the likes of Lululemon Athletica (LULU) and Restoration Hardware this week will give Wall Street its latest reading.