Limited: Too Sexy for Its Profits

Investors who bought Limited Brands (NYSE: LTD  ) for its sex appeal will no doubt be shocked by a story in today's online edition of The Wall Street Journal, in which the CEO of subsidiary Victoria's Secret, Sharon Turney, says the brand is now "too sexy."

Heedlessly following the lead of its successful Pink clothing line, VS has strayed from its "heritage" of selling "more-sophisticated, higher-quality products" tailored to the everywoman. As a result, while younger shoppers are flocking to the stores, their elders are fleeing.

To where? says that lower-cost retailers like Target (NYSE: TGT  ) , J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP  ) , and Kohl's (NYSE: KSS  ) are likely to benefit, while American Eagle (NYSE: AEO  ) and the new Gilly Hicks operation launched by Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF  ) could steal share as well.

But whoever ultimately embraces those fugitive shoppers, the effects on Limited itself are clear: Fourth-quarter same-store sales were down 8%; total sales dropped 19%; and net income was off 12%.

What sexy isn't
All of that sounds pretty bad -- but is it? Honestly, it's hard to tell anymore. The "noise" caused by Limited's one-time charges (for restructuring and taking a loss on the sale of Limited Stores to Sun Capital) and benefits (for everything from unused balances on gift cards, to tax benefits in Canada, to the gain on sale of Express to Golden Gate Capital, and a million other details) obscures how what's left of Limited is doing. So instead of wading through the swamp of last year's news, let's look forward, to what will hopefully be simpler, more comprehensible (and hopefully profitable) times.

In terms of the bottom line, Limited expects to earn somewhere between a nickel and a dime in the first quarter of 2008, and $1.35 to $1.55 per share by year's end. While I can no longer tell whether that's better or worse than what Limited's former self earned last year, I do know that it if it comes to pass, the stock's currently priced at about 11 times this year's expected earnings.

Assuming Limited doesn't make itself less profitable in the process of becoming less "sexy," and assuming that analysts are right about the 12.5% long-term growth they posit for the company, that price looks, if not drop-dead gorgeous, then at least attractive.

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