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To celebrate the holidays, we here at the Fool are devoting extra virtual ink to all things consumer-focused in a special section called "The 12 Days of Christmas." Over the coming week, we'll have our "12 Days of Content" surrounding consumer-focused names that look set to profit or perish from the holiday cheer.
This year's holiday season comes wrapped in ominous packaging. As consumers scour the aisles in search of bargain-basement deals, retailers struggle to preserve their dwindling margins amid an all-out price war.
In this ruthless climate, many struggling retailers will leave coal in shareholders' stockings -- especially if, like Borders Group (NYSE: BGP ) and Blockbuster (NYSE: BBI ) , they're also saddled with a sackful of debt. But not all retailers face such miserly holiday tidings. Here's a quick list of stores anticipating a warmer, cozier end to a very bitter year.
Buckle (NYSE: BKE )
This teen retailer has done admirably well selling trendy merchandise from a variety of suppliers. Buckle has cinched up compound annual growth of 19.8% in revenue and 31.3% in net income over the last three years. The company also enjoys a strong balance sheet, with $93.6 million in cash and no debt. Best of all, it currently trades at a strikingly reasonable 11 times trailing earnings.
Aeropostale (NYSE: ARO )
Like Buckle, this fellow mall-based retailer has been able to buck the recessionary trends, perhaps thanks to its focus on lower-priced fashions for teens. Over the last three years, it has generated compound annual growth of 16.5% in revenue and 30.2% in net income. Aeropostale shares Buckle's bargain P/E of 11, and it sports a similarly cushy pile of cash, with $285.6 million and zero debt.
Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE: WMT )
It's hard to overlook the Bentonville Behemoth's impact on the retail landscape. I've long had grave reservations about some of its business practices, but tough times have helped the mammoth discounter show off its crucial edge: Wal-Mart excels at providing low, low prices for bargain-hunting customers.
The company's a slower grower compared to the previous two examples (remember its age and gargantuan size), having produced compound annual growth of 6.1% in revenue and 7.3% in net income over the last three years. It's not debt-free, either, with $6 billion in cash against $47.4 billion in debt. However, given its strength in the marketplace and its strong positioning in a tough economy, that's not the same high-risk concern it might be for weaker retailers. Wal-Mart trades at 15.5 times earnings, and its shares recently strayed into territory cheap enough for superinvestor Warren Buffett to carve himself a piece.
Costco (Nasdaq: COST )
What a fantastic business! Helmed by Jim Sinegal, a prime example of an exemplary CEO, Costco makes bulk shopping fun. The company also has a reputation for treating its employees well -- an awesome competitive advantage for the long term. (Too bad rival Wal-Mart can't quite say the same.)
Like Wal-Mart, it has exhibited slower growth than smaller, mall-based retailers; its compound annual revenue growth for the last three years is 5.9%, while net income actually shrank by 0.5% a year, on average, over the same period. Egad! At least Costco has $1.4 billion in net cash ($3.7 billion in cash, minus $2.3 billion in debt).
At a P/E of 24, Costco does sound pricey. Still, given its customer loyalty, exemplary management, and disciplined, rock-bottom pricing, it remains a golden retailer for the long term. It doesn't hurt that -- along with Wal-Mart and Buckle -- Costco pays a shiny dividend.
Urban Outfitters (Nasdaq: URBN )
This company's collection of retail outlets, including the core Urban Outfitters concept, Free People, Anthropologie, and Terrain, appeals to individualists everywhere. Compound annual revenue growth for the last three years clocked in at 16.2%, while net income growth checked in at 16.3%. Urban Outfitters is also a cash-rich retailer, with $418.4 million in cash and no debt.
At 31 times earnings, the company commands a higher price tag than many comparable retailers. But its history as a savvy, hip growth retailer with a strong cash position gives Urban Outfitters a serious advantage in the current environment. Its swift turnaround several years ago after a grave fashion misstep merely serves as further evidence of the retailer's impressive strength.
Go for the gold, not the brass, this holiday season
The retail landscape looks treacherous this year, and Fools shouldn't underestimate the risks many retailers face. To survive these frosty times, seek sturdy survivors with ample insulation against icy economic headwinds.
Which retail stock ideas do you think look golden this year? Which will pile lumps of coal in investors' stockings? Discuss the retail stock landscape -- or diss my picks, and submit your own -- in the comment boxes below.
Follow along with our "12 Days of Christmas" article series: