3 Companies That Defied the Fiscal Cliff

Bad news, retailers: If you were hoping to blame the fiscal cliff drama for sabotaging your holiday results, then you're out of luck. These consumer-facing companies just turned in excellent December results, making it that much harder to blame the cliff bogeyman for crimping sales growth.

Instead, it looks like consumers were willing to spend cash with some retailers, even after shopping like mad over the Black Friday weekend, and even in a month dominated by negative economic headlines.

Let's take a look at those great results.

1. Nordstrom (NYSE: JWN  ) : December comparable sales up 8.6%

If consumer confidence was diving and spending was being cut back, Nordstrom didn't seem much affected by the gloom. The department store knocked it out of the park with a nearly 9% jump in December sales versus the year-ago quarter. And those gains weren't limited to just the company's discount stores. Sales popped as high for full-price locations, up 8.2%, as they did at the off-price Nordstrom Rack, which notched an 8.1% rise.

Online selling has been another bright spot for the retailer. Direct-to-consumer sales were up 38% last quarter, on top of the 33% growth from the year before. That's just about the opposite of the performance turned in by J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP  ) , which saw online sales drop by 37% over the same period. Nordstrom's great December capped off a solid year, with sales 7% higher than they were in 2011.

And the company didn't get there by sacrificing margins with deep discounting. While other retailers, including Target and Macy's attached a lower fourth-quarter earnings outlook to their December sales results, Nordstrom didn't. Analysts expect the company to grow profits by 20% in the quarter, to $1.33 a share.

2. Costco (NASDAQ: COST  ) : December comparable sales up 8%

Costco didn't go off any cliff, either. Net sales clocked in at $11.21 billion for the month of December, up 12% from the previous year. The warehouse retailer is on one heck of a winning streak. Most recently it boosted sales by 10% last quarter, trouncing the 5% rise that Wal-Mart reported from its Sam's Club stores over the same period.

Costco's membership-based business keeps customers engaged and helps boost store traffic even through tough retailing months. At last count, renewal rates were near 90%, and still rising. It's that kind of success that has Sears (NASDAQ: SHLD  ) staking its turnaround on moving to its own "member based business model." While Sears has built up a base of loyalty program members, it hasn't been able to turn that into business success yet. Sales fell by 2% at Sears and by 5% at Kmart last quarter.

In contrast, Costco continues to deliver the whole package to investors. On top of sales and profit growth, it sent out a huge special dividend last month. If there's a downside to that kind of broad outperformance, it's that the company's shares never seem cheap. Costco trades at a pricey 25 times trailing earnings, which is near a five-year high.

3. Gap (NYSE: GPS  ) : December comparable sales up 5%

But the same can't be said for the Gap. Here's a pleasing list of numbers for Gap investors: 10%, 9%, 6%, 3%, and 5%. That's the Gap's last six months of comparable sales growth. The clothing retailer kept the streak alive this December as compared to last year's disappointing holiday. Its struggling international division was the one exception:

Division

December 2011

December 2012

Gap

(4%)

2%

Banana Republic

(2%)

1%

Old Navy

(4%)

13%

International

(6%)

(6%)

Source: Gap financial filing.

Profits are on the rise, too. As the retailer's product mix has improved, so has gross margin. It grew to 41% last quarter, better than the 37% Gap booked the year before.

Gap's impressive turnaround has fueled a stock chart that looks like the opposite of a cliff, with one-year returns of almost 80%. Yet it's still cheaper than American Eagle (NYSE: AEO  ) and Urban Outfitters (NASDAQ: URBN  ) . Gap's P/E ratio is just 16, as compared to American Eagle's 22 and Urban Outfitters' 31.

Looking ahead
The next few months should be at least as challenging for retailers. Paychecks will be getting smaller for all Americans as the payroll tax holiday expires, yanking billions of dollars out of consumer's pockets. But these companies boast strong momentum heading into 2013, and they have shown that they can weather the stress better than their competitors.

Get off to a good start in 2013 by getting the inside scoop on what Motley Fool superinvestor David Gardner will be buying this year. He's crushed the market in his Stock Advisor and Rule Breakers portfolios for years, and now you can take a personal tour of his flagship stock picking service: SupernovaJust click here now for instant access. 


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