Chilly Post-Holiday News From Coldwater Creek

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Last night after market close, retailer Coldwater Creek (NASDAQOTH: CWTRQ  ) issued a press release. It ran a little like this: Hey, shareholders! We're presenting at the 15th Annual ICR XChange Conference on Wednesday! Oh, and P.S.: We're reporting worse-than-expected results for the fourth quarter.

Coldwater Creek's fourth-quarter same-store sales will be flat compared to last year. It also anticipates a fourth-quarter loss of $0.75 to $0.85 per share, much worse than the previous guidance for a loss of $0.55 to $0.65 per share.

The press release put a happy spin on the holiday selling season, citing "strong sales during peak holiday selling periods, highlighted by record Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend performance, and favorable overall customer response to our holiday collections." It goes downhill from there, though, since Coldwater said that the early parts of November and December yielded only weak customer traffic.

Meanwhile, as might be expected, the retailer had to employ more promotions than it anticipated, lowering margins. Although it attributed these negatives to macroeconomic factors spooking consumers, Coldwater Creek has had difficulties getting its business back on track over recent years.

The price of transition
Some of the higher quarterly costs relate to the company's transition to new CEO Jill Dean, who has replaced retired CEO Dennis Pence. Dean, previously an 18-year veteran from some of Limited Brandsconcepts over the years, most notably Limited Too and Victoria's Secret, was Coldwater Creek's chief merchandising officer prior to her promotion to the top spot. Her annual base salary will be $850,000, and it will include the usual extras like stock options and a severance agreement.

Apparently, severance agreements for executives, excluding Pence, are based on the need to "encourage long-term retention by providing a guaranteed level of financial protection upon loss of employment ." Apparently, the risk of defection is no joke at this company.

These transitional costs connected to the CEO change added up to approximately $2.1 million, or $0.07 per share in the fourth quarter. In fact, if you check a Form 8-K filed in late November, boom: Pence will receive a payment of $2 million connected to his retirement. He'll also receive a $375,000 retainer for serving as chairman of the board in 2013.

Bear in mind that at his own request, Pence didn't receive a salary for most of fiscal 2012 as the company continued struggling to turn around its fortunes, and received a $1 base salary several years prior. But still, his $2 million payment upon retirement pretty much makes up for sacrifices that were made, particularly given his lack of severance agreement.

The boomer bummer
Interestingly, Coldwater Creek has updated its boilerplate description. In the latest press release, Coldwater Creek describes itself as "the fashion informed style advocate for the 50 year old woman."

That's some interesting verbiage, given the fact that retailers like Coldwater Creek have struggled mightily with that demographic. Coldwater may insist it's an "advocate," but will older women buy it?

One of the most notable examples is Talbots, which was bought out after many arduous years of bad financial results and difficulties attracting its core audience of older female shoppers.

Shares of Fifth & Pacific (NYSE: KATE  ) jumped this week; this is the company previously known as Liz Claiborne, but it sold off that boomer-oriented brand to J.C. Penney in order to focus on more youthful brands like Kate Spade, Juicy Couture, and Lucky Brands. Investors got excited about Fifth & Pacific due to hot sales generated by the Kate Spade unit.

Chico's (NYSE: CHS  ) is a relative winner in this retail segment; in the third quarter, it reported hefty growth in net income and sales . Even more impressive, Chico's increased its same-store sales by 10% in an ugly consumer environment.

Ann (UNKNOWN: ANN.DL  ) , better known as Ann Taylor, is often associated with this handful of companies, and has also been reporting hefty sales growth. However, its focus on career-oriented attire for working women may be mature, but that focus is not as mature as Coldwater Creek's and Chico's demographic.

Cold comfort in Coldwater's shares
Coldwater Creek may look like a beaten-down retail stock, especially given the fact that its share price is taking a major dive today, down nearly 20% at my last check. Don't take the bait and go bottom-fishing, though. This retailer's challenges are abundant in a difficult economic climate and in targeting a difficult customer demographic.

If you're shopping for a retail stock in this ballpark, go with Chico's, which not only has a reasonable PEG ratio of 1.11 but also has cash on its balance sheet and no debt. Coldwater Creek's just getting colder and colder.

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