TJX Companies Flush with Success, but Not Averse to Taking Big Risks

The TJX Companies (NYSE: TJX  ) is one of the most successful off-price retailers in the country. The company has recorded phenomenal net-income growth for a lengthy stretch which goes back about four years, and its stock has hit 52-week highs. Its revenue has also grown by almost 70% in that time span.

Despite TJX's shares trading at near all-time highs, they are still decently priced when compared to those of rivals Target, Costco Wholesale (NASDAQ: COST  ) , Ross Stores, and Wal-Mart.

The TJX Companies operates 3,000 stores under the T.J. Maxx, HomeGoods, and Marshalls brands, as well as other names in Europe and Canada. TJX's popularity with consumers stems from its ability to sell clothing at dirt cheap prices -- about 20% to 60% cheaper than specialty retailers and department stores. TJX is able to cut prices to the bone simply because it has perfected the art of cutting great deals with desperate clothing makers and apparel stores. The company's 800 buyers scour the markets for order cancellations, manufacturer overruns, and closeouts so it can buy its merchandise for a song, after which it passes on the huge cost-savings benefits to its customers.

TJX is a master at penny pinching, and its stores are bare-bones affairs, quite often messy and cluttered. The company, just like Costco Wholesale, does not advertise -- the brands whose merchandise it stocks would of course not want to be identified with cut-price goods. The company's lean operations leave it with an enviable profit margin.

Costco Wholesale operates very much like TJX. The company also does not advertise, and this helps it save about 2% of its revenue that would otherwise be used for promotion purposes.

Despite the prevailing weakness in the U.S. retail sector, Costco has been recording impressive sales growth in the last few quarters. The firm's comparable store sales grew at an average of more than 5% for the last three quarters. The biggest drivers that have been fueling this new growth include the company's rapidly swelling membership base, as well as the robust growth of the warehouse industry in the country. Costco's core value proposition, strong private labels, and ancillary businesses have also been at the helm of the progress.

Taking risks
TJX Companies is one of the very few retailers that seem to be immune to the disruptive pricing activities of Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN  ) , the suicide bomber of retail. In a recent study conducted by a William and Blair analyst in 2013, TJX Companies, together with Cabelas and Walgreen, emerged as the retailers least likely to lose market share to Amazon.  Amazon has been growing its revenue at a sweltering pace, completely overrunning most other traditional retailers and wrenching market share from them.

TJX is, however, now shifting focus from its huge base of loyal shoppers and chasing after a new class of customers. The company launched a new website with little fanfare, tjmaxx.com, in September 2013, in a move that could potentially complicate its erstwhile streamlined operations, and also open up the company  to competition from Amazon. TJX's products have a 17% overlap with Amazon's products, compared to 46% for the average retailer. It is this uniqueness in its products, coupled with low prices, that have made the company quite invulnerable to the Amazon onslaught.

TJX had tried to launch an online operation back in 2004, but failed abysmally. In 2012, the company took another swipe at e-commerce when it bought Sierra Trading Post, an Internet retailer. The company's latest move is therefore seen to build on the Sierra acquisition. Ross Stores is yet another discount store that has of late gone the Internet way.

New initiatives
TJX's urge to go online is perfectly understandable. After all, Forrester predicts that U.S. online retail sales will grow from the current $262 billion to 370 billion by 2017.  The Internet might not be dying anytime soon. However, TJX should not lose focus on its core customers -- cash-strapped mums.

Moving into e-commerce comes with new challenges. The retailer's odd-lot purchases are likely to lead to uneven inventories, and this could be problematic for its customers. This could make TJX's customers flee to rivals Costco Wholesale or Ross Stores.

The biggest risk is that a TJX website will put the company's prices within easy reach of Amazon. Amazon might find it hard to replicate TJX's goods, but it could offer customers roughly comparable goods at roughly the same prices, or maybe even cheaper prices. The availability of a website will make online price comparisons by TJX shoppers a lot easier, and this elevates the risk for the company even further.

TJX also plans to make a host of other small, but significant, changes. For one, it plans to target men more. According to a popular Wharton study titled 'Men Buy,Women Shop' that was conducted in 2007, women are more than happy to schlep through heaps of marked-down sweaters while men tend to be more mission-focused, entering a store hoping to make a purchase in the shortest time possible and then leave in a hurry. Most men would, therefore, quite naturally be ill at ease in TJX stores, which are loved by shoppers for the 'treasure hunt' experience they provide. Women spend $4 trillion annually on shopping and they account for a staggering 87% of U.S. consumer spending. Therefore, it's in TJX's best interest not to lose its grip on this extremely important demographic.

TJX also plans to go after another class of fickle customers -- teens and young women in their early twenties. But nailing trends tends to take a lot more skill than buying either basic or classic merchandise. By moving into this direction, TJX will find itself in head-on competition with the likes of Hennes & Mauritz, Forever 21, and others.

Foolish bottom line
There is a risk that TJX might stumble in one or two of its new initiatives and find its business wobbling. In its defense, TJX knows only too well that change is the only constant in life, and it is inevitable in the long run. If any of its new ventures tank, the company can issue a mea culpa and rush to win back its old customers who have made it what it is today. The huge popularity of discount stores in the U.S. will, however, make companies such as TJX, Costco Wholesale, and Ross Stores decent investments for many years to come.


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