HOTT Is Still Not

If the cavalry were on the way to save Hot Topic (Nasdaq: HOTT  ) , it would seem that they need a better map, because they haven't shown up yet. And as gloomy same-store sales figures continue to act as short-bait, there just isn't a lot of enthusiasm or optimism to be had with this retailer.

Given how comps have been trending, it almost seems like a minor miracle of sorts that revenue was up more than 5% this quarter. And while the company's efforts to squeeze better pricing out of vendors would seem to be showing up at the gross margin line, overall operating profits continue to erode.

Speaking of comps, overall same-store sales fell more than 5% this quarter, as positive women's comps (up 6%) were swamped by very negative results in men's comps (down 18%). Breaking the numbers down further, average ticket size was up, but the number of transactions fell 11%.

Perhaps it will be prove to be a mistake over the long haul, but I generally pay a lot of attention to those traffic/transaction numbers -- simply put, you can't really win the retail game by squeezing ever more sales out of a loyal (but shrinking) customer base. Traffic is the lifeblood of a retailer and if Hot Topic can't lure more people into its stores, it has a big problem. As a result, I'd argue that Wet Seal's (Nasdaq: WTSLA  ) negative comps this quarter were a better kind of negative comp, as traffic patterns were stronger.

With each uninspiring same-store sales release, it's harder for me to stay optimistic about Hot Topic. Simply put, I think it's really lost its way on merchandising (something which is also currently sinking furniture and knick-knack retailer Pier 1 (NYSE: PIR  ) ). So while I'm still impressed with the back office management and I think there's substantial potential leverage here, none of that matters unless and until sales get moving again.

I would never suggest buying a stock simply because of M&A potential, but that may prove to be a floor here. The company has a clean balance sheet, and though it's fairly small, it has enough of a national footprint to perhaps be interesting to a private equity investor. Unfortunately, with no apparent juice in comp-sales trends, it's pretty hard to get excited about this teen retailer.

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Fool contributor
Stephen Simpsonhas no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).


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