It wasn't too long ago that Pier 1 Imports (NYSE: PIR ) looked like a wreck. In 2009, it was on the brink of bankruptcy. Many investors gave it up for dead.
So it's been a pleasant surprise to hear the company announce this week its first dividend. Granted, it's a modest $0.04 per share, but it clearly was a sign of life from management, as were an optimistic fiscal-year guidance of $1.06 to $1.12 in earnings per share -- up 13% to 19% over 2011 -- and same-store-sales growth in the mid-single-digit percentages.
All that was backed up with the announcement of a three-year plan than includes more share repurchases to follow up September's $100 million transaction, in addition to offering more quarterly dividends, remodeling and improving stores, and launching the "Pier 1 To-You" campaign in July. CEO Alex Smith said the company is shooting for sales of $225 per retail square foot and an operating margin of at least 12% by fiscal 2015, compared with its previous goal of $200 per square foot and a margin of 10%.
That all sounds very optimistic, so management is obviously baking in some expectations of economic recovery into its plans. As Fool Andrew Marder wrote about rival Williams-Sonoma (NYSE: WSM ) , these houseware chains thrive on disposable income.
But look at how Pier 1 has performed in the past three years. As Rick Munarriz noted recently, the company's quarterly earnings are now 5 times what the whole thing was worth three years ago. Pier 1 survived the worst of the recession and saw competitors such as Bombay go under. Once the housing and employment market start to give it more of a tailwind, the company will benefit from having less competition.
However, as some in the Motley Fool CAPS community have noted, big-box stores such as Target and Wal-Mart now carry a lot of the same wicker and low-priced Asian/African inspired decor that Pier 1 specializes in. But Pier 1's real rivals are the specialty-houseware chains such as Crate and Barrel or Williams Sonoma's Pottery Barn and West Elm divisions, which aim at the same middle- to upper-class consumers who are more likely than lower-income groups to have disposable income in the early stages of the economic recovery.
And Pier 1 has managed to turn itself around in an environment that offered it absolutely no favors. For one thing, the housing market is still on life support. According to research firm CoreLogic, national housing prices were down 2% in February, the seventh drop in a row. Meanwhile, however, the Commerce Department's retail-sales tally shows that housewares stores were up 12.4% in January and February over the same time in 2011. Bed Bath & Beyond (Nasdaq: BBBY ) just posted solid fourth-quarter results, too. So shoppers are at least spending on the homes they already have.
What Pier 1 needs to do now is capture that spending, and its three-year plan includes some steps toward doing just that. Among other things, there are plans to open an online store. It's hard to believe, but Pier 1 may be the last major retailer without current e-commerce capability. Lacking an online retails presence stops the company from exploring new opportunities, and as Andrew Marder noted, it leaves money on the table when it has a presence in Pinterest but no way for Web surfers to click through and buy products. CEO Smith said Pier One aims for 10% of its revenue to come from the Web by 2016. Given that the costs of selling online are lower than in stores, that should turn into a tidy boost to profits.
The CAPS community isn't giving this stock a whole lot of love. Maybe it's time Fools gave it a second look. But if Pier 1 isn't your kind of place, find out about retail stocks that are remaking the sector by reading our report, "The Death of Wal-Mart: The Real Cash Kings Changing the Face of Retail." Get your free copy.