Should I Buy Tesco?

LONDON -- It's time to go shopping for shares again, but where to start? Mining giant Rio Tinto? High-yielding insurer RSA Insurance Group? Or renowned U.K. engineer Rolls-Royce?

There are plenty of great stocks to choose from, and I'm enjoying doing some window shopping. So, here's the question I'm asking right now. Should I buy Tesco (LSE: TSCO.L  ) ?

The big drop
Gosh, hasn't Tesco been a disappointment lately? A couple of years ago, this growth-hungry retail giant had gobbled up most of the U.K. high street and was sizing up the rest of the planet. It looked unstoppable.

But the world turned, and Tesco fell out of favor. U.K. shoppers bridled at its charmless big-box stores. The supermarket's 500 million pound Big Price Drop campaign famously flopped. Sales fell for the first time since 1994.

In January, the unthinkable happened. Tesco's share price suffered its own Big Price Drop, plunging nearly 25% to from 4.11 pounds to just 3.12 pounds in a matter of days, wiping 5 billion pounds off its market value. 

Just as shockingly, it has scarcely recovered since. You can now buy Tesco for 3.18 pounds. Does that make it a bargain?

A little help needed
It's a good time to find out, because Tesco has just posted its results for the half year to Aug. 26. And it's looking a bit shop-soiled, reporting a 12.4% fall in U.K. trading profits to 1.12 billion pounds, although it did return like-for-like sales growth for the first time in seven quarters, thanks to the success of its rebranded Everyday Value range. It was only a quarterly rise of 0.1% but, as they say, "every little helps."

Tesco also reported 11% growth in online U.K. sales, while chief executive Philip Clarke defended the profits drop by saying it had spent big this year, taking on 8,000 new staff and investing 1 billion pounds in its stores, in a bid to boost the customer experience.

Mr. Clarke also blamed the disappointing performance on rising fuel prices, tax hikes, and slowing incomes, all of which have hit Tesco customers hard.

Mind you, they have also hit shoppers at Sainsbury's, but sales growth has been stronger.

Think small
Investors who bought right after the big Tesco share price drop in January in the hope of making a quick profit will have to hunker down for a lengthy wait.

After years of sweeping all before it, Tesco has some adapting to do. It now plans to invest more in its online offerings, and slow its aggressive campaign to slap a new giant store on the edge of every U.K. city, town and village. Smaller stores are the future, it believes.

Tesco isn't just struggling in the U.K. International profits fell 17% to 378 million pounds, because of the slowing Chinese economy and eurozone austerity, where sales dropped nearly 7%.

This isn't an easy time to invest in retailers. Then again, the share price slump has left Tesco trading on a juicy yield of 4.5%, with a forecast price-to-earnings ratio of 9.8 for February 2013.

I like to buy big companies on bad news. Although I expect Tesco to struggle for a little longer, I wouldn't bet against it in the longer run. Over a five-year time frame, I'm tempted to gamble on its recovery.

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Harvey Jones does not own shares in any of the above companies. The Motley Fool owns shares of Tesco. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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