Is Ulta Selling for a Bargain?

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No amount of makeup could have prettied up Dec. 6 for cosmetics company Ulta (NASDAQ: ULTA  ) . Following its quarterly results, the makeup distributor's stock spiraled down as much as 22%, even though several key metrics had taken solid strides forward. If this is simply a classic example of a Wall Street panic attack, investors might have the opportunity now to buy stock in a cheaply priced company with solid growth prospects.

By many accounts, Ulta appears to have just had a pretty good quarter. Net sales were up to $618.8 million, a 22.4% boost from the same time a year ago. eCommerce had a solid hand in that growth, having increased 74% since Q3 2012, and CEO Mary Dillon noted that prestige cosmetics and skincare were the strongest segment.

Ulta grew its profits as well, with $72.9 million in operating profit compared to last year's $61.3, and net profit bulking up from $38.2 to $45.4 million. The company also opened 55 new locations- more stores than it has ever opened in one quarter- making its ability to retain higher operating profits additionally impressive.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown
Dillon has only been in office as CEO since July. Prior to that, Ulta was in a bit of a state of upheaval. Former chief financial officer Bruce Hartman stepped down last October after just six weeks on the job, and Ulta's old CEO Chuck Rubin followed suit in February, moving instead to act for another retailer- Michael's.

Perhaps understandably, Wall Street didn't respond well to two consecutive execs abandoning ship. Ulta stock fell 13% following Rubin's departure. It's one thing for a CEO to simply retire, but to leave for a different retail store suggests that the grass might not be as green as Ulta would have investors believe.

Mary Dillon has entered the retail world after working in a slightly different arena- previously she was president and CEO at wireless carrier US Cellular. Perhaps it's not surprising then, after coming from an industry known for its tendency to obfuscate, that Dillon has only vaguely described her plans for Ulta's future as an "adjusted promotional strategy" that might give up a bit of margins to protect market share.

Is it Ulta-mately worth it?
If executives were clearly explaining their plans for adjusting Ulta's "promotional strategy" going into next year, it would be easier to gauge whether the company was currently a buy or not. The company's comments during the call were optimistic, but also fairly vague, making it difficult to tell whether there's weight behind Ulta's supposed plans, or the company plans to use a trial-by-error method of testing them. With a more concrete (or at least better explained) plan of attack, Ulta could be a more solid stock pick. As it stands, investors might want to wait a quarter or two to see exactly what's up Dillon's sleeve. 

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9/26/2016 4:00 PM
ULTA $237.81 Up +0.80 +0.34%
Ulta Salon, Cosmet… CAPS Rating: ****