Retail Sector Heading for a Black Friday Bust

Black Friday brings to mind the advent of holiday shopping -- and in the investing sense, it's the most important time of the year for retailers' financial health. Many, many retail stocks are anything but seasonally strong, though.

Some big names with beaten-down prices may seem like potentially dirt-cheap stocks. Many of us try to buy on dips whenever we can, and some price drops represent legitimate bargains.

However, some retail stocks' prices are weak for a reason. Their fundamental businesses are more likely to deliver tragedy than turnarounds during the 2013 holiday season and beyond. Here are two examples of the types of retailers to avoid, as well as one retail stock idea that looks like a bargain now and one to hold far beyond Black Friday.

Sad Santa at Sears
Sears Holdings (NASDAQ: SHLD  ) and its Kmart unit are clearly looking at Thanksgiving and Black Friday to get a foothold in a difficult holiday season. Kmart will open on Thanksgiving Day like it did last year. It's hoping to get a head start on coaxing holiday shopping dollars, and that's a panicky gambit.

Under Chairman and CEO Eddie Lampert's long tenure at the top, Sears' business lost the plot long ago as far as being an actual retailer goes. For years, investors hinged great hopes on the idea of its real estate portfolio and deft financial engineering, none of which have been borne out yet.

An array of more popular, not to mention powerful, big-box competitors have been eating the company's metaphorical lunch as its units forgot how to compete. A tarnished brand and continued downward spiral has resulted in the sense that Sears and Kmart may not even exist at all someday, and maybe sooner than we think.

Sears exhibited more wrenching business bleed in its most recent quarterly tidings. It's fairly shocking to see a retailer report a quarterly loss of $534 million, or $5.03 per share. It's also staggering to contemplate that in the same quarter last year, it reported a loss of $498 million, or $4.70 per share. Total sales dropped 6.6%, and same-store sales fell 3.1%. There's little long-term comfort in its plan to raise cash by eyeing spin-off or a sale of its Lands' End and auto businesses, respectively.

Things are even more ominous factors on Sears' balance sheet. As of the last 12 months, Sears' total debt-to-equity ratio is 201.8%. Ominous signs like this one are reminiscent of how Borders looked in 2008. That should be a chilling thought for hopeful shareholders.

Maybe Sears and Kmart should only open on Thanksgiving and Black Friday if that's one high-profile strategies to remind consumers they still exist. They no longer seem like players otherwise, and investors definitely shouldn't go there, either.

J.C. Penney's not a steal
J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP  ) is a partner in illness in the retail space. It is another of the retailers opening its doors on Thanksgiving Day, hoping to coax some customer traffic into its stores.

Like Sears, J.C. Penney enjoyed a famous hedge fund manager's support for a long while; Pershing Square's Bill Ackman threw a lot of support to J.C. Penney, much like he did as Borders circled the drain. However, in this case, Ackman beat a retreat earlier this year, selling his entire stake at a loss.

In 2013, J.C. Penney shares have plunged precipitously as investors hoped for a turnaround. However, late-breaking bad news is the retail stock's ouster from the S&P 500. Last quarter, J.C. Penney beat analysts' dismal expectations -- with a staggering loss of $489 million, or $1.94 per share. Sales dropped by 5.1%. J.C. Penney's balance sheet is also not comfortable. Its total debt-to-equity ratio is 212%.

In a bizarre turn, CEO Mike Ullman revealed last quarter that J.C. Penney also faces some danger from within: employee theft and shoplifting. That's not productive discounting.

J.C. Penney is also likely to produce coal for the stocking in the holiday season and beyond. This stock is not a steal.

A better Black Friday stock idea
If investors are looking for holiday bargains, a few strong companies' stocks have recently suffered some weakness on minor, short-term concerns. Those are far better holiday stock ideas.

Urban Outfitters' (NASDAQ: URBN  ) stock has tumbled in recent months, but this is a far better stock for folks to consider buying than those of super-struggling retailers.

Although the retailer, which also owns Anthropologie and Free People, revealed that same-store sales in the current quarter are trending in the mid-single-digit growth range, that's not exactly the end of the world in a tough environment for retail. There's no sign that the business is broken even if some sentiment has flagged.

Meanwhile, its PEG ratio is just 1.27, a good sign that if expected growth continues, the stock is currently a bargain. Although its forward price-to-earnings ratio of about 18 is about the same as teen rival Abercrombie & Fitch, bear in mind that Abercrombie's performance has been choppy, and in the last 12 months, its sales and profitability have precipitously slowed.

Urban Outfitters has been solidly profitable and raking in revenue, for many years. It also has $445 million in cash on its balance sheet and no debt. Cash-rich retailers have a better shot at surviving through bad times and good, since they don't have the added financial burden of debt.

Black Friday consumer bargains are easier to value in retail stores than in retail stocks. However, doing extra research and browsing carefully for the highest quality goods at reasonable prices is far better than getting excited about "cheap" stuff that isn't worth the bargain price.

Winning retail ideas
To learn about two retailers with especially good prospects, take a look at The Motley Fool's special free report: "The Death of Wal-Mart: The Real Cash Kings Changing the Face of Retail." In it, you'll see how these two cash kings are able to consistently outperform and how they're planning to ride the waves of retail's changing tide. You can access it by clicking here.


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