Considering that Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD ) has failed to provide a single quarter of same-store sales growth in the years since it merged with the bankrupt Kmart, the news that it has taken a nearly 14% stake in -- and wants to acquire -- troubled Restoration Hardware (Nasdaq: RSTO ) definitely raises some eyebrows.
The specialty hardware retailer previously agreed to a management-led buyout, but in an SEC filing, Sears disclosed that it is considering making a higher bid. Why would Sears want to buy this hardware retailer, which has reported faltering sales and earnings?
There seems to be little to recommend such a merger. Restoration Hardware has 102 stores, eight outlet stores, and direct-to-customer Internet and catalog sales channels. Sales in the most recent quarter amounted to $183.8 million, up just 2.5% from the year before, as the challenges facing the housing industry continued to impede the retailer's progress in restoring its health. Profits have deteriorated as well, with operating income falling to a loss of $5.5 million from a $2.1 million profit this time last year.
The one bright spot has been Restoration Hardware's direct-to-customer segment, which reported a 37% increase in sales for the quarter. While operating income increased, it fell as a percentage of revenue. Still, it remains the place where the company saw growth, and that may be the key to Sears's proposed bid.
Sears has been unable to reestablish itself in consumers' mindshare as it pits itself against Target (NYSE: TGT ) and Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) . Flagging comps have led many analysts to question CEO Eddie Lampert's commitment to maintaining the retail chain and not simply using it to liquidate its real estate.
But Sears has had its own bright spot, too, and that's been its Lands' End division. Bought in 2002 for $1.9 billion, Lands' End has seen higher sales, albeit less stratospheric than it initially hoped for. That might have been because of poor positioning -- Sears was a retailer that carried Lands' End clothes, rather than a Lands' End retailer. But this has been subsequently changed with the creation of the store-within-a-store concept.
Lands' End, however, has a catalog and online-retailer pedigree, and melding the Restoration Hardware direct-to-customer channels with it might make a decent fit. With other specialty retailers like Williams-Sonoma (NYSE: WSM ) and Pier 1 Imports (NYSE: PIR ) still showing the effects of weak housing, there doesn't seem to be anything special about Restoration Hardware that would make anyone think Sears will be able to change its direction.
While Lampert is often compared with Warren Buffett, his magic has failed to materialize at the discount retailer, particularly now that shares are down 42% from their all-time highs. Adding a high-end hardware retailer to the mix, particularly one with a market value as small as Restoration Hardware's, doesn't seem designed to appreciably change the results all that much.
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