I don't know about you, but I had a great holiday. I saw family, got some new toys, and ate too much food, setting me up for a great January of not eating -- ever -- if I can manage it. But some of my favorite companies didn't fare as well. With consumers worried about the fiscal cliff, and corporate failures slowing foot traffic to a trickle, it was a bad month. Here are three businesses that I hate to see do poorly, but December was not their month.
In its last quarter, Target (NYSE: TGT ) increased comparable store sales by 3%. Then in November, it managed to lose all its momentum, with sales falling 1%. Now it's back on the right track, but at a slower pace. In December, Target increased comparable-store sales by an anemic 1%. In the press release, management blamed soft sales over the first three weeks of December for the shortfall. It put a pretty face on things, though, saying that in 2013 the company would focus on "growing Target's market share." Presumably, that means that this time next year Target will be reporting better sales.
But that shouldn't be enough to placate investors. The current quarter has been absolutely dull, with comparable sales up just 0.4% quarter-to-date. With such a strong run coming into the end of the year, what did Target do to botch things up? The three-week soft spot is a good indicator. To me, that says that Target misread its customer base, and thought that its price-matching and quality were just going to draw people in the door this year.
Instead, Target needed to focus on promotions that get people through the door without killing its bottom line. I had high hopes for its tie-in with Neiman Marcus, but the collaboration fell apart early. As Time's Martha White points out, "Oscar de la Renta -- who outfits celebrities in red-carpet looks -- offered pet accessories: dog bowls and rhinestone collars." Instead of offering good but aspirational items, the companies combined to offer "stuff." Target needs to get its act together early in the year if it wants to see a successful 2013.
December sales figure at Limited Brands (NYSE: LB ) fared little better than Target. Comparable sales were up 3% in December, a 2 percentage point drop from its 5% increase in November. The fall put it well off of the pace that it had managed for the rest of the year, with year-to-date comparable sales finishing up 6%. Looking across the company's brands, it's clear that lingerie was the drag in December. Sales at Victoria's Secret were flat, while the La Senza brand brought in a 9% drop in comparable sales.
While La Senza has been a headwind all year, the flatline at Victoria's Secret is concerning. Until December, things had been going well, and November sales were up 4%. Unlike Target, Limited doesn't have a clear answer as to why things went south --making the situation much more troubling. In order to get back into the swing of things for 2013, Victoria's Secret needs to re-energize its core customers. If it falls too far behind, not only will it need to get feet back into the stores, but it will also have to justify its trendiness. That would be a long fall to recover from.
Barnes & Noble
Finally, everyone's favorite death's-door bookseller rang in the new year with more bad Nook news. Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS ) reported a drop in Nook sales during December, which were layered on top of an 8% decline in comparable-store sales. Management was plainspoken about the failure, saying that after strong Black Friday sales, the company didn't yet know why December sales lagged.
Barnes & Noble has been suffering recently, and the fall in Nook sales is going to set it up for a challenging year. Luckily, its recent collaboration with Pearson (NYSE: PSO ) should give its 2013 Nook marketing strategy a swift kick. The publishing company announced an $89.5 million investment in the Nook business unit, just last week. In return, Barnes & Noble has given over 5% of the unit, valuing the whole Nook business at $1.8 billion -- more than twice Barnes & Noble's market cap.
If it's going to keep fighting for market share, Barnes & Noble needs to do something with the Nook in the first half of 2013. Otherwise, it's going to be a "could have run" by next Christmas.
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