FOOL'S DEN
What's Behind Same-Store Sales?

By Bob Fredeen (TMF Bobdog)
June 27, 2000

Article Synopsis: Every month, retailers announce their sales and comps growth. "Comps," which refer to comparable same-store sales, can help investors determine how well a company's brand is doing and how efficiently its stores are increasing revenues.

What are Gap (NYSE: GPS), Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX), and Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) talking about?

Each month, as that calendar page flips over, these and other companies make announcements like the following: Gap's same-store sales dip, Starbucks' same-store sales rise, Wal-Mart's same-store sales up. So what are these all-important numbers, and why do they matter?

Same-store sales, or "comps," refer to comparable same-store sales. They measure sales growth at stores that have been open for over a year. So for a store to be able to count monthly comps for May 2000, it must have been open for the full month of May 1999. If the store opened May 15th 1999, comps couldn't be counted until June 2000, a year after the store's first full month.

To understand quarterly and annual comps, simply replace "month" with "quarter" or "year" and apply the same concept. (Almost every retailer announces comps each quarter, and more and more are announcing them each month as well.)

What factors affect comps? The two main factors are prices and number of paying customers. Revenues equal price times the number of sales, right? So all things being equal, if prices go up and volume stays the same, sales will increase. And if volume increases but prices stay the same, sales will also rise.

Notice, however, that when a company has a bad month, it doesn't often attribute that fact to price or volume problems. Companies rarely say things like, "No one came to our stores on the 18th of the month, so comps declined." To its credit, Gap recently announced that comps fell because of deeper discounts on prices, but this is the exception, not the rule.

The usual suspects for falling comps are things like unusually placed holidays and very bad or very good weather. In defense of retailers, if a big shopping holiday is later in the year than usual or March had four shopping weeks this year as opposed to five last year, these things could hurt comps and would be beyond the company's control.

Now that we know what comps are and what factors affect them, let's see what these numbers mean for a company. First and foremost, rising comps are good. Rising comps mean that more people are coming to buy things at the stores, or paying more for the same things they bought a year ago, or some combination of the two. Either way, sales are increasing without the added costs associated with new stores. This shows that marketing is doing well and that the brand is popular with consumers.

Rising comps are also a cheap way to increase revenues. There are two ways for retailers to increase revenues: increase revenues at existing stores or increase the number of stores. Obviously, the former is less expensive. Some companies, like Starbucks and Wal-Mart, have done both. Others, like Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF), have increased stores but comps have been weak.

What about falling comps? When a company's comps are falling, it could mean one of a few things. It could mean that the brand is losing strength and people aren't shopping at the company's stores. It could mean that the economy is worsening and people aren't interested in shopping anywhere. It could mean that the company has too many items at discount prices. But one thing is certain: Falling comps represent a problem. In such a situation, the question to ask yourself is, "Is this a short-term bump in the road or the beginning of a long-term swoon?"

This question is very difficult to answer, as you have to look at several factors to come to any sort of conclusion. And since that conclusion is an attempt at predicting the future, there's no guarantee that the conclusion will be correct. But there are a few marks of the difference between short-term and long-term problems. If negative comps are the most recent in a long string of negative comps, that's a bad sign. How competitors are faring is important, too. Gap suffered from negative comps in both the last quarter and the last month, but so did several other apparel retailers.

Actually, looking at Gap leads us to a final point: Look at what the company says the problem is and what it is going to do about it. Gap recently said that it had moved away from the core values that made the company strong to begin with and that it intends to re-focus its brands on these values. At the very least, this shows that management sees the problem and is trying to fix it. It may not work, but the company is moving in the right direction.

In the end, the most important thing to remember about comps is that -- just like any other metric or number -- it is a part of the picture, not the entire tableau. Just because comps are rising does not mean the company is a good investment. And falling comps do not always mean it's a bad one. The trends you see and the reasons for those trends matter, sales and margins matter, and the financial health of the company matters, too.

Related Links:

  • May Retail Sales
  • Motley Fool Research Report on Gap
  • Gap Discussion Board
  • Motley Fool Research Report on Starbucks
  • Starbucks Discussion Board
  • Motley Fool Research Report on Wal-Mart
  • Wal-Mart Discussion Board