Retailers: Fashion or Flop?

Ahead of the trends, or behind the times? That's a big question for many retailers these days, especially given many consumers' ongoing financial belt-tightening. Let's look at two retailers' quarterly results.

Cost of Citi living rises
Citi Trends (Nasdaq: CTRN  ) has looked pricey to me lately, but its shares are jumping significantly again today. The company beat expectations in its latest quarter, and reaffirmed its forecast for 2008. For some folks, it seems that news is good enough, considering that shares had risen more than 8% the last time I checked.

First-quarter net income actually fell 8.8% to $5.2 million, or $0.36 per share. Sales increased 13.5% to $121 million, with same-store sales squeaking up 0.3%. Gross margin decreased to 38.6% from 39.1%, as sluggish shoppers forced the retailer to mark down merchandise in order to keep sales moving.

It bugs me that Citi Trends had to reclassify the lion's share of the cash on its balance sheet to "non-current securities," since the auction rate securities market has become illiquid. These noncurrent securities add up to $53.7 million that the company can't access at the moment. Citi Trends also mentioned taking a small writedown (which will affect shareholders' equity). The company has $4.7 million in cash and a $35 million credit facility, and in the conference call it reassured investors that it has adequate liquidity to fund its operations.

Many companies put cash to work in such short-term securities, instead of letting that cash sit idle. Still, I'd be wary of any companies with significant amounts of cash tied up in those now-frozen investments.

Citi Trends reaffirmed its guidance of $1.10 to $1.15 per share in 2008 earnings. Judging by the stock's jump today, I guess many investors find that heartening.

Hot ... or not?
Hot Topic (Nasdaq: HOTT  ) has been a longtime hot topic of mine. I was a punk in high school, so the chain's historically punk and Goth sensibility has always made me nostalgic. However, fond memories don't make an investing case, and Hot Topic has been struggling for quite some time now. I doubt the consumer slowdown's helping much.

The retailer's first-quarter loss widened to $1.4 million, or $0.03 per share, compared to a net loss of $809,000, or $0.02 per share, this time last year. Sales increased a mere 1.1% to $159 million, as same-store sales dropped 2.9%.

However, some investors may have found a silver lining in Hot Topic's announcement that its second-quarter loss should be flat or narrower than last year's. The company's expecting a loss of $0.02 to $0.04 per share (versus a year-ago loss of $0.04 per share).

Search for strength
Investors in both companies seem to be saying, "Wow, it could have been worse." The struggling economy's left many fellow retailers in similarly tough straits.

I certainly haven't given up on retail stocks, but I do prefer the ones coming from positions of strength. For example, I'm looking forward to Aeropostale's (NYSE: ARO  ) earnings tomorrow; so far, it's bucked the nasty trends.

Meanwhile, Citi Trends trades at 17 times this year's expected earnings, which sounds steep to me. Hot Topic trades at 13 times earnings, but given its challenges, I'm not convinced that's cheap enough.

Consider a retailer like American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE: AEO  ) ; after a recent rough spell, it trades at just 11 times its expected earnings, which sounds reasonable. Despite investors' recent pessimism about American Eagle, I just don't buy that its brand is anywhere near busted.

Retail's not completely down and out. However, the current economic climate means that Fools should carefully weigh any investing decisions in this sector before trying one of these companies on for size.

American Eagle Outfitters is a Stock Advisor recommendation. To find out what other companies David and Tom Gardner have recommended to subscribers, take a 30-day free trial. The Fool owns shares of American Eagle.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any companies mentioned. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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