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By abFatPitch
November 12, 2007

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I closed the office this past Friday, 11-9, to do some pre Black Friday Christmas shopping with my wife for my Brady Bunch-like family of six children ranging in ages from 2-19. We went to Birmingham, AL (2 hours from my house) to two separate upscale shopping areas, The Summit, which is a Mecca of publicly traded retailers mostly on the upper-mid to high end, and The Riverchase Galleria, a large mall with pretty much everything. Seven hours and $1500 later, here are some impressions.

1st stop is the Apple Store, AAPL. 10:30 AM and the place is abuzz. Wish I'd had a shred of insight when this stock was $15 a stub and mostly cash. What can I say, sales don't appear to be slowing and we dropped $300 for a couple of iPod Nano's.

I drop into Eddie Bauer, EBHI, for myself as it's about the only place in the world I can find pants that fit decent off the rack. Not a bad crowd, everyone's buying something. Company seems to have problems though.

My wife goes next store and gets an $80 pair of shoes from Ann Taylor, ANN. Same story, decent crowd, everyone's buying something. Difference here is that ANN always gives decent returns when bought on the cheap which it is probably close to now. Mid 20's looks good.

I'd never been in a Restoration Hardware, RSTO, so we browse through. Quite overpriced but quite nice home furnishings. Taken private last week. Good luck Catterton Partners. I wind up spending $79 on a gorgeous bath robe my wife rather strongly desired but thought was too much money so I bought it off the internet site yesterday out of her view. : )

We go into an Urban Outfitters, URBN, as neither one of us had been there before. Overpriced head shop is what it is, or more generously, upscale alternative. No $ spent as it had absolutely no appeal other than curiosity. Can this concept last? Still expensive stock too, maybe a short here.

Walk next door to a place that is polar opposite, American Eagle, AEO. Moderately priced, fairly conservative clothes and all very nice stuff. I'd shop here if I were 10 years younger and 20 lbs. slimmer. Spent about $100, half of which was in Aerie, the AEO concept for young girls which I thought was very nice and spot on. Very good pricing here too. Found stuff for my large 7 year old and my model-like 15 yr-old step daughter. Great store with the right number of friendly, very knowledgeable staff.

Drop $60 at Pottery Barn Kids, WSM on my 7 year-old's only Christmas request, a "Dalmatian," along with a couple of neat bath toys. Nice, expensive stuff. I'm sure Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma are familiar and the company seems inexpensive if not compelling.

Bought $30 worth of little kids clothes (2 & 4 year-old) at J.C. Penny, JCP. Stock seems cheap. Don't follow regularly, but probably represents value on the other side of the slowdown when P/E expansion is possible.

Drove over to Justice, TWB, where I spent $50 on hip clothes for a 7 year old (think Hannah Montana). A lady in the store gave me an extra 20% off coupon that she happened to have. Lots of markdowns but it seemed a capable store. Tween Brands is another inexpensive stock that likely will give decent returns. Store was busy.

Next stop Goody's. Apparently they are no longer publicly traded and it's just as well. Bought 17 items, tops and jeans for teenagers that were originally priced at $30 almost universally, that after individual item markdown, Veteran's Day markdown, storewide markdown and credit card application markdown, cost $200 for $450 worth of clothes. How 'bout them margins?

Most interesting stop of the day from an investment perspective, Buckle, BKE. We walk in and its pretty crowded and high energy. Their clothes, etc., are moderately to a bit overpriced but decent stuff. We spend about a $100 on some tops. Thing is, half the crowd and all the energy are the employees. I counted 12 in a smallish-average size store, all but one were 16-20 years old and that one, the store manager probably in his early 30's, looked as if he were trying real hard to be 20. Most were standing around being loud and farting off with each other. A few were helpful but most were idiots. I assumed they were all on commission and only 2 of them were making any marijuana money.

Spent $70 at Pac-Sun, PSUN. A decent collection of surf and board wear, staffed by some decent and knowledgeable kids. Not much of a crowd. Attn: Volcom, VLCM fans, the few items they had were on the clearance rack. Still, I'd rather own VLCM from the bottom than PSUN.

Also spent $100 at Books-A-Million, BAMM. You know, books.

It was a fun and exhausting day. I was left with the impression that retail is alive and well and that the slowdown/recession is either in the early stages or may not be as severe as I feared it could be (helpful I know).

A couple of side notes, my favorite place to buy clothes for my wife, Talbot's, TLB, still appears to be in trouble and J. Jill ain't helping. The Chico's, CHS, concept White House/Black Market, should've stayed a concept. Didn't get to Coldwater Creek, CWTR, but I wished I'd had, parking area was full. Don't know if the stock is cheap enough yet.

ab