It's been a bad year for Coach (NYSE:COH). The company has been steadily taking it on the chin since missing an earnings estimate in January. In the last quarter of the 2012 calendar year, Coach lost focus on its core brand, and spent too much time hyping its men's and international offerings. Those areas did well, but at the expense of U.S. sales of women's handbags. That's a bad miss, and the fall from grace is at least partially deserved. But there's still a lot of room left for Coach to run, and even rivals like Michael Kors (NYSE:KORS) aren't going to be able to stop it from making headway. Here are three reasons you should consider adding Coach back into your wardrobe.
Coach may have made a branding misstep, but its CFO, Jane Nielsen, has kept it on the straight and narrow when it comes to the books. In that last quarter, the company generated free cash flow of $567 million, which was only a small drop from the $572 million a year ago considering that the company moved up its dividend payment to the end of December. Along with being cash-friendly, the company also has little long-term debt, only $23 million at the end of last year. That's the kind of cash cow that investors should love.
That strength comes mainly from the company's excellent margins. Gross margin was still above 70% last quarter, and operating margin was 35%, a half a percentage point increase over the previous year. All of these financial strengths point to the second reason that I still like Coach.
Yes, I know that Kors is growing like kudzu. The company boasted a 41% increase in comparable-store sales last quarter -- which is just mean. Who does that? Coach is having to contend with those sales, but the success of Kors doesn't mean the death of the Coach brand. However, it can't be overlooked that Coach did have a 2% drop in comparable sales last quarter. As investors, we have to decide if that's the beginning of a trend, or merely a bump in the road, and I believe we're looking at a bump.
The main reason that Coach saw a drop could be seen in its windows and on its website -- it focused too heavily on men. The company made the right choice to open more men's locations and add more menswear to its existing locations, but it made the wrong marketing move. By focusing on menswear, it allowed Kors and others to step in with easy sales to women. The company has recognized that shortfall, and now it needs to do something about it, which I believe it will. This isn't going to be a one-quarter spring-back, but Coach should be back on track by the end of the year.
The final reason I like Coach is tied to both its brand and its management philosophy. While brand strength represents the value that consumers see in a brand, brand integrity refers to the value that the company sees in the brand. Last quarter, Coach's management team decided not to increase comparable sales by pushing promotions, thus protecting the value they saw in the brand. Compare that to what Tiffany (NYSE:TIF) did during the market crash.
The jewelry company decided to reach out to a wider audience, and in doing so lost sight of the exclusivity that made it Tiffany. Gross and operational margins fell, pulled down by lower-price-point items and the competitive environment that the company waded into. Since 2009, though, Tiffany has made strides to polish its image, and now gross margin is almost back to 60%, with operational margin back above 12%. Coach has defended its brand, and refused to sell at lower price points just to drive short-term income. That's going to help it later down the line when it needs all the brand value that it can get.
The bottom line
Coach is a profitable, well-run, and well-branded company. I love the focus that management has on the products, and I think that the plan to get back on track is clear enough. With some work on its marketing message, and a view toward getting more of its core customers back through the door, Coach should be in a position to do very well this year, and for years to come.
Fool contributor Andrew Marder has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Coach. The Motley Fool owns shares of Coach. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.