Abercrombie, Oh Abercrombie

My relationship with retailer Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF  ) is a contentious one. I'm pleased to be a shareholder one minute, dismayed the next.

It reminds me in a weird way of my high school friendships with football-playing future frat boys. I mean, I knew deep down inside that they were good guys, just doing the best they could. And yet, I repeatedly found myself embarrassed at their behavior, shaking my head when they'd do something stupid. Again.

I've maintained my faith in Abercrombie over the past five years through nearly innumerable controversies. From thong underwear for little girls (sold in the company's children's stores) to racially insensitive T-shirts last year, to lawsuits alleging the company only hires blue-eyed, blonde-haired hotties as "brand representatives," to the increasingly nude-filled porn-like "magalogs," I've seen it all. And I've held my shares through it all, despite feeling flat-out embarrassed at times to be an owner of this company. There are things I like about it, of course.

I like that the company protects its brand by not resorting to the same promotional discounting that other teen retailers, such as American Eagle (Nasdaq: AEOS  ) , do. I like that it remains debt-free. I like that it has $431 million in cash sitting on its balance sheet. I like that the company's produced 45 straight quarters of earnings growth.

However, now I'm wondering if I've been too lenient. Following the company's ugly October same-store sales results (extending its two-year streak of negative comps), Abercrombie lowered Q3 expectations again. After releasing those Q3 results yesterday, it lowered its Q4 outlook.

The company has managed to grow earnings despite continuing sales weakness, thanks to tightening its expenses. How much longer can it keep this up, though? I'm all for wringing greater operating efficiencies from your business, but at some point the company has to reach an impasse with this strategy.

An even bigger concern for me is its ongoing assertion that its "aspirational" brand will eventually connect once more with its target market; it just has to hang tight through this challenging environment. However, looking at the huge success of such retailers as Hot Topic (Nasdaq: HOTT  ) , Pacific Sunwear (Nasdaq: PSUN  ) , and Urban Outfitters (Nasdaq: URBN  ) , which offer distinctly different looks from Abercrombie, I have to wonder if perhaps the retailer's lost its touch altogether. I realize that Abercrombie claims to target an older demographic than either Hot Topic or Pacific Sunwear, but regardless of that focus, high school kids do shop there. Or rather, they used to.

Even Abercrombie's lower-priced surf and skate themed brand, Hollister, stumbled in October, reporting negative comps. That's troubling given the young age of the chain and the fact that Abercrombie's relying on it to be a growth vehicle. The company insists October was an isolated event for Hollister. I sure hope it's right about that.

I'm not ready to give up on Abercrombie just yet, but I'll admit that my willingness to wait is wearing as thin as one of the company's sheer shirts. I'm giving the company the benefit of the doubt for a while longer, given its financial strength, but it's losing my confidence here. I hate it when that happens.

Obviously, LouAnn Lofton owns shares of Abercrombie & Fitch. Share your thoughts on the Abercrombie discussion board -- one of the best boards in all of Fooldom.


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