Unless you've been living under a rock for the past six months, you're well aware that economies around the globe are reeling. It's not pretty, but activity hasn't come to a full stop, either.
Take retail, for example
For more than a decade, consumers have been consistent spenders, but not in 2008 -- and maybe not in 2009, either. Specialty retailers started confirming declining sales well before we reached December, the biggest shopping month of the year, and the holiday season was as bad as advertised.
Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) and BJs Wholesale (NYSE: BJ ) are two obvious exceptions. They sell necessities at very competitive prices, and it makes perfect sense that both would fare much better than average. Both are outperforming the S&P 500 by more than 30 percentage points over the past year. We all need to eat, clean our homes, and replace clothing that wears out. It's hard to beat the bang for the buck that discount retailers deliver.
But there are lesser-known companies out there with superior growth prospects. Finding a compelling retail story requires casting a wider net.
One well-positioned apparel company
Japanese apparel retailer Fast Retailing is bucking the negative same-store-sales trend. Uniqlo, Fast Retailing's largest concept, posted a 15% same-store-sales gain last quarter. I'd be surprised if the company can keep this pace up -- January's figure was 6% -- but I do think it is well-positioned to continue growing, and it has the right focus for the current environment. Return on capital is high and steadily rising, and the company has done a great job reducing its cash conversion cycle -- both key efficiency metrics.
Most of Fast Retailing's brands focus on providing basic apparel offerings at competitive prices. Fast Retailing is able to do so well because it has a well-developed supply chain stretching throughout China and Southeast Asia. Uniqlo sells everyday basics such as underwear, jeans, shirts, and athletic apparel for a good value. Its stores are nice, but by no means fancy.
The current hot seller at Uniqlo is performance athletic apparel, which speaks volumes about consumers' current spending habits. Japan is an absolute mecca for brands. This is part of the reason why Coach (NYSE: COH ) , Nike (NYSE: NKE ) , and Adidas have had so much success in Japan, and why Under Armour (NYSE: UA ) is targeting that market.
This story might have a few more chapters
Fast Retailing operates one Uniqlo store in New York City and has long had its eye on the U.S. as an expansion opportunity. But it hasn't ramped up expansion yet because it felt that leases and operating costs were prohibitive. With mall vacancies at a 10-year high and some retailers failing, the story is changing, and the current pain in the retail sector could work to Fast Retailing's benefit.
Fast Retailing trades in the U.S. in small volume as an American Depositary Receipt on the over-the-counter exchange. But whether or not you think that Fast Retailing is one of the best stocks to buy today, it's important to realize that the company is part of a much larger picture of firms around the world that, even in this environment, continue to perform exceptionally well. It's not the only company out there with unique opportunities or competitive strengths that aren't fully understood.
For example …
Having just come back from a research trip to Mexico, I feel confident that the opportunities for home builder Homex (NYSE: HXM ) are underappreciated. In telecom, Turkcell Iletisim Hizmetleri (NYSE: TKC ) has above-average growth prospects and a better valuation than you'll find among domestic telecoms.
At Motley Fool Global Gains, we scour the globe looking for companies like Fast Retailing that have underappreciated competitive advantages and growth opportunities that help them thrive, even in this environment. To read about our recommendations and all of the notes from our research trips now, click here for a 30-day free trial. There is no obligation to subscribe.
Nathan Parmelee is co-advisor of Global Gains. He doesn’t own shares in any of the companies mentioned, but he does admit to owning some Uniqlo underwear that he picked up on a recent trip to Tokyo. Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Coach is a Stock Advisor pick. Under Armour is both a Motley Fool Hidden Gems and a Rule Breakers recommendation, as well as a Fool holding. Turkcell Iletisim Hizmetleri is a Global Gains selection. The Fool has a disclosure policy.