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Macy's Inc. (NYSE:M)
Q3 2018 Earnings Conference Call
Nov. 14, 2018, 9:30 a.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good morning and welcome to the Macy's Inc. third quarter 2018 earnings call. Today's hour-long conference will end promptly at 10:30 Eastern Time, and is being recorded. In the interest of time, we ask that you please limit yourself to one question. I would now like to turn the conference over to Monica Koehler, Vice President, Investor Relations and Finance. Please go ahead.

Monica Koehler -- Vice President, Investor Relations and Finance

Great. Thank you. Good morning and welcome to the Macy's Inc. conference call scheduled to discuss our third quarter earnings and outlook for the remainder of the year. Joining us on the call today are Jeff Gennette, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer; and Paula Price, Chief Financial Officer.

Any transcription or other reproduction of the statements made on this call without our consent is prohibited. A replay of the call will be available on our website, macysinc.com, beginning approximately two hours after the call concludes.

Keep in mind that all forward-looking statements are subject to the safe harbor provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. These forward-looking statements are subject to risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from the expectations and assumptions mentioned today. A detailed discussion of these factors and uncertainties is contained in the company's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In discussing the results of our operations, we will be providing adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, net income, and diluted earnings per share amounts that exclude the impact of restructuring other costs and settlement charges associated with our defined benefit plans.

You can find additional important information regarding these non-GAAP financial measures, as well as others used in our earnings release, and during this call on the investor section of our website. We look forward to taking your questions after our prepared remarks. With that, I'll turn the call over to Jeff.

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, Monica. Good morning, everybody, and thanks for joining the call. As you saw in our press release this morning, Macy's delivered a strong third quarter with comparable sales up 3.3% on an owned plus licensed basis and earnings of $0.27 per share. We saw strong results across the Macy's Inc. business with Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and Bluemercury all performing well in the quarter, which contributed to our solid top line growth.

Based on the third quarter results, we are raising annual earnings guidance by $0.15, and adjusting the range of sales guidance. Paula will give you more details on the quarter and our outlook in her remarks.

Macy's recipe for success is e-commerce, healthy stores, and a great mobile experience that ties it all together. It is our competitive moat. Our e-commerce business just completed another conservative quarter of double-digit growth, driven by continued improvement to our online offering and experience. We invested early in mobile, and our mobile app just keeps getting better. We view the Macy's app as our customers' indispensable shopping companion and increasingly, it's becoming a channel for transactions as well. This year we will hit $1 billion in mobile sales.

The growth of our digital business goes hand-in-hand with the growth of our brick-and-mortar business. We've seen trend improvement in our stores beginning a year ago, and we've seen steady quarter-to-quarter progress throughout the year. This is important because healthy brick-and-mortar business is part of our strategy to build lifetime value with our existing customers and bring new customers into the brand.

I'm going to give you a brief update on our strategic initiatives and then Paula will take you through the details of the quarter, and then we're going to open up the line for your questions.

As we noted on our last call, the third quarter was an important time for us, as we were laying the groundwork for our strategic initiatives. That work is complete and we're fully prepare for the critical holiday season ahead. As you know, we have five strategic initiatives in 2018, and let me touch on each of them.

Loyalty. We recently marked the one-year anniversary of our new loyalty program, and I'm pleased to say that the program is delivering the results we anticipated. Our platinum customers, who are our best customers, are spending more with us and shopping more frequently. They like the simplicity and value of the new program. We've had a great response to the exclusive experiences that we've been able to offer to platinum cardholders. Because we have a well-developed entertainment and events business, Macy's has a unique portfolio of experiences to pull from and to offer our platinum cardholders. This includes exclusive access to our iconic events like the upcoming Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, like concerts, fashion shows, cooking classes, to name a few.

While the first priority of our loyalty program is to take care of our existing best customers, we've now expanded the program with a new tender-neutral tier which we launched earlier this year. We call this the bronze program. The bronze program is showing strong early results, and we have added nearly 2 million new members to the loyalty program. Overall, we're very pleased with the loyalty program. It's bringing new customers into the brand and increasing the lifetime value of our best customers.

No. 2 initiative -- Backstage. We've added 121 Backstage locations this year, including nearly 60 in the third quarter. I'm proud of the work the team has done to deliver this expansion. It is a testament to the speed and agility that we've emphasized across the company. We now have 166 Backstage in-store locations. With this scale, we are now dialing up our marketing for Backstage with an emphasis on product that is on price, on trend, and arriving daily. We expect the additional marketing, which launched last month, will increase awareness of Backstage and bring new customers into the store. Importantly, we continue to see a lift in sales across the entire store when we add in Backstage.

Third initiative -- vendor direct. To understand the role of vendor direct, let's first take a step back to understand how we look at the role of curation. In our stores, we curate for our customer through a highly edited assortment that is localized to a specific market. Using our enhanced data and analytics, we're able to efficiently influence assortment down to the store level. But online, the customer curates for herself using search and personalization tools.

Vendor direct allows us to offer our customer a vastly wider assortment online, and the self curation tools directs her to products where she's shown the most interest. We have more than doubled our SKUs online since the launch of vendor direct in April. This includes an expanded assortment of great national brands that we already carry, as well as the addition of new brands and categories that we know our customer will love.

No. 4 -- stock pickup. In the third quarter, we completed the expansion of our store pickup options. As a refresher, with BOPS, or Buy Online Pickup in Store, a customer orders online, choosing from the merchandise available in a specific store, where they can then pick it up within two hours or less. With BOSS, or Buy Online Ship to Store, customers have access to merchandise anywhere in the Macy's system, including vendor direct, which is then shipped to their neighborhood store for pickup.

BOSS is very popular with our customers, and we are seeing greater-than-anticipated use. Our customers love having access to the full Macy's assortment, coupled with the security and convenience of pickup at their neighborhood store, and BOSS has been a hit. To support fulfillment of both BOSS and BOPS orders, we completed the rollout of At Your Service to every store in the fleet.

At Your Service centers are located in a high traffic door for quick and convenient pickups. At Your Service also handles returns, self-checkout assistance, and a variety of customer service activities. The success of BOPS and BOSS is a great example of how our e-commerce business and our stores business grow together.

Our last of our five initiatives is Growth50. As we noted in the last call, the third quarter was when much of the construction work was under way for the improvements in the Growth50 stores, which represent what we'll talk about in a moment, our magnet stores. I'm pleased to say that the teams were able to minimize the disruption in these stores. Even better, now that the work is complete, our customers have noticed the improvements and are responding well. The Growth50 stores are performing ahead of their peer stores. This improved performance gives us confidence to roll this treatment out to another 100 stores in 2019. This investment will help us continue the momentum of our stores business and drive the top line into the future.

While we put an emphasis on the Growth50 stores, I do want to note that we've also invested in each of our stores this year. Every store in the Macy's fleet has received improvements, including At Your Service centers, mobile checkout, and elevated and localized merchandising assortment.

To sum it up, we've turned in a strong performance for the fourth quarter, and we enter the fourth quarter fully focused on our customer. The holidays are where Macy's really shines, and I'm confident that we have the right strategies, the right merchandise and marketing, and the right experiences to win with today's consumer.

Several things give me confidence in our ability to deliver in the fourth quarter. Consumer confidence and spending remains strong. It's a great backdrop. No. 2, our e-commerce business is humming and the dot-com penetration naturally increases in the fourth quarter. Three, our stores are in good shape for the holiday and have momentum. Four, our strategic initiatives are up and running, and we will feel their full weight in the quarter. And lastly, our colleagues across the business are engaged, aligned, and rowing in the same direction. With that, I'm going to turn it over to Paula.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, Jeff. Good morning, everyone. In the third quarter, we delivered $5.4 billion of sales, an increase of 3.3% on an owned plus licensed comparable basis. Overall, we were pleased with our operational and financial performance, as sales, earnings and cash flow all exceeded our internal expectations. Through continued strong execution, the traction and scaling of our key strategic initiatives, and the healthy consumer environment, we extended the positive momentum from the first half of the year into the third quarter.

We delivered solid performance across all our channels, brands, and geographies. Our digital business maintained its steady double-digit growth, as we continued to significantly expand our assortment and enhance our personalization capabilities. As Jeff mentioned, our brick-and-mortar business again demonstrated improved and very encouraging sales trends. Our channels also benefited from the successful rollout of the BOSS and BOPS fulfillment options.

Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and Bluemercury all positively contributed to our performance in the quarter, and each exceeded our internal expectations. While we saw solid performance around the country, we delivered our strongest regional performance in the Northeast and North Central, which is primarily in the Midwest. Turning to families of business, we delivered another quarter in men's and kids, fine jewelry, women's shoes, fragrances, coats and activewear, offsetting some underperformance in fashion watches and women's sportswear. We benefited late in the quarter from the cold weather.

Total transactions were up 3.8% in the quarter, reflecting strong customer demand, both online and in stores. Average units per transaction were down 3.1%, and average unit retail was up 2.6%, driven by more regular price selling versus a year ago. We generated net credit card revenues in the quarter of $185 million, up 28% from last year.

On the strength of our new loyalty program, the corresponding penetration or usage rate of our proprietary credit cards increased 100 basis points to 48.4%. Our new loyalty program is not only delivering a more engaged customer as Jeff mentioned, but also stimulating higher credit sales and proprietary card balances, which yield higher credit card revenues, and enhance our overall operating performance.

We delivered gross margin in the quarter of $2.2 billion. Our gross margin rate of 40.3% of net sales was flat to last year. We achieved significant rate expansion in our merchandise margins through stronger, regular-price selling. This merchandise margin rate expansion exceeded our internal expectations, and fully offset higher delivery cost related to both our new loyalty program that launched in October of 2017 and our growing e-commerce business.

As planned, we ended the quarter with inventory up 50 basis points on a comparable basis. This is consistent with the expectation we set on our last earnings call, as the calendar this year put us one week closer to the holiday season, and had a timing impact on our receipt flow. We continue to expect our inventory to be down at the end of the fiscal year.

We recorded $2.3 billion of SG&A expense in the quarter, $67 million higher than last year. On a rate basis, our SG&A expense was 41.7% compared to 41.4% last year. As we have been discussing, this is due to investment in our strategic initiatives, including Backstage and our path-to-growth incentive that we used to align all our colleagues around our Northstar strategy, as well as to help us compete in a tight labor market. This will be our third conservative quarter with the incentive, which is open to all full-time, part-time, and seasonal colleagues. In the third quarter, about 75% of our colleagues earned the incentive.

Asset sale gains in the quarter were $42 million, $23 million lower than last year. We delivered adjusted EBITDA of $407 million, which was 3.8% lower than last year. When excluding asset sale gains as well, EBITDA was up 2% in the quarter, based on stronger sales, the strength of gross margin, and higher credit card revenue.

Our interest expense in the quarter was $59 million, compared to $74 million last year, as we accelerated our debt reduction by $744 million over the past 12 months. Tax expense in the quarter was $12 million or 16.2% of pre-tax income, benefiting from the Federal Tax Reform Act and certain tax settlements. This compares to $10 million or 27% last year.

We delivered adjusted net income of $83 million versus $65 million last year. When excluding asset sale gains as well, we more than doubled our adjusted net income to $52 million compared to $25 million last year. Our adjusted EPS was $0.27 in the quarter, compared to $0.21 last year. When excluding asset sale gains as well, adjusted EPS was $0.17, more than double the EPS of $0.08 last year.

Cash flow from operating activities was $429 million year-to-date, $30 million above last year. We invested $127 million more in capital expenditures related to our strategic initiatives, and received $91 million less in proceeds from asset sales. We returned $347 million to our shareholders in the form of cash dividends. We ended the quarter with $736 million in cash, which was above our expectation. We remain committed to using excess cash in 2018 to reduce debt to consistently achieve our target leverage ratios. We continue to believe that having a healthy balance sheet is key to maintaining both flexibility and durability.

Taking our strong third quarter performance into consideration, we are raising the low end of our annual sales guidance. Our new range is 2.3% to 2.5% on a comparable owned plus licensed basis. Our guidance for annual net sales growth is now 0.3% to 0.7%. As a reminder, fiscal 2017 had one extra week of sales. We are raising our full-year adjusted diluted EPS guidance by $0.15 to a range of $4.10 to $4.30. We are also raising our guidance for annual new credit card revenue to a range of $740 to $755 million.

We are adjusting our annual effective tax rate slightly downward to 22.75%. All of our other annual guidance assumptions for gross margin, SG&A, interest expense, depreciation and amortization, capital expenditures, and asset sale gains, which include the anticipated sale of the former I. Magnin building in the fourth quarter remain the same.

While we are cycling a strong fourth quarter from last year, we are confident in our fourth quarter plans. Our colleagues are aligned and engaged and poised to deliver the full strength of our strategic initiatives over the holiday season. We have had a few inquiries related to our store segmentation strategy that some of you have read about yesterday, so before we open the line to your questions, I'll ask Jeff to make a few comments.

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Paula. I wanted to give everybody some color about our store segmentation strategy. It's really based on the customer insights that we have, and a deep understanding of how the customer, what their shopping journey looks like across online and our stores platform. We certainly know that our best customers, they shop with across channel, across category, and across stores.

So within a market, strong brick-and-mortar I think everybody knows really amplifies our online sales. Conversely, when we close stores, our online sales in that market decrease. Increasingly, our stores serve as fulfillment centers for shopping that is done online. We see that in the popularity of our pickup options, which I mentioned as part of my BOSS and BOPS update.

For some context, today over one-half of our platinum and gold customers, which are our best customers, regularly shop online and at least two or more Macy's-specific stores. Knowing this was very important for us to better understand their behavior. When and why does she choose one Macy's store over the other? What are her expectations in different types of Macy's stores and within the specific malls? This exploration led us to our segmentation strategy.

So we have bucketed our stores into three segments. We call them our flagships, magnet stores, and neighborhood stores. You're going to hear more in more granular detail, our segmentation strategy, when we lay out our 2019 plans in the new year. But I did want to take a moment to give you a sense of how we're looking at these three buckets.

Let's start with flagship stores. This includes Herald Square, as well as 10 regional flagships. These are some of the best retail properties in America. Each of these 11 stores are the No. 1 retail destination in their regional market. They have the best that Macy's has to offer. It's really an all-senses engagement through fashion, service, and experience.

Our next bucket is what we call our magnet stores. These are really represented by the stores that we currently have in our Growth50 group. When we're looking for a Macy's store or a mall that offers the best of fashion, food, and entertainment, which is what customers look to for magnet stores. Those are also where they go for magnet malls. Customers come to magnet stores for expanded selection, including special occasion, dress-up for men's and women's, fine jewelry, an expanded gift assortment, a wider selection of home, and in 2018, we launched this Growth50 or these magnet stores.

The investment approach we now believe is a scalable formula that as we mentioned earlier will be rolled out to 100 additional stores in 2019. The last bucket is our neighborhood stores. These tend to be smaller. These stores are all profitable, and each play an important role in how our customer experiences the Macy's brand. Customers visit their neighborhood store primarily for convenience, for fulfillment of online orders, as well as for basics in things like skincare replenishment or casual wear.

We're currently testing four different investment models for our neighborhood store that are aimed at increasing shopping ease and convenience, including more self-service options. In 2019, we will test and iterate until we land on the right formula to scale the neighborhood stores in our fleet. To sum up, a large percentage of our best customers already shop both their neighborhood store and their magnet store and their shopping behavior feedback will inform our store segmentation strategy moving forward.

With that, we're going to open it up for questions.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

Thank you. The question-and-answer session will be conducted electronically. If you would like to ask a question, please do so by pressing the * key followed by the digit 1 on your touchtone telephone. If you're using a speakerphone, please be sure your mute function is turned off to allow your signal to reach our equipment. To allow everyone an opportunity to ask a question, we ask that you please limit yourself to one question. Once again, please press *1 to ask a question. We'll take our first question from Matthew Boss with J.P. Morgan.

Matthew Boss -- J.P. Morgan Securities -- Analyst

Thanks. Congrats on your fourth positive comps.

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Matt.

Matthew Boss -- J.P. Morgan Securities -- Analyst

Jeff, I guess along those lines, to map out sustainable positive comps from here, I guess can you help us rank the initiatives that you have in place to improve store traffic? Then on the e-commerce front, can you help break down vendor direct and just the magnitude of this opportunity?

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Matt, I think when we look at the fourth quarter, we're obviously looking at a very strong environment that we're playing on along with our competitors. So the consumer confidence is very strong. The spending is strong. I think the predictions when you look at where consumer spending is going to be during the holiday season, it's a very good backdrop for us.

If I was ranking, to your question, I think our dot-com business, we expect that to be very strong; certainly double-digit growth. It's a much higher penetration during the fourth quarter, which really helps our comps in that particular quarter. I think one of the headlines on our dot-com business is that we've made significant improvements to the site navigation and content in 2018, and we're ready for the holiday season.

I'd say the second piece of it is that our stores, all stores, are improving in their trend from where they've been It's sequential improvement quarter to quarter. Now that all the investments has really touched all stores -- be it At Your Service or mobile checkout, and certainly what we've done with the Growth50 initiatives, we're ready for all the gift traffic that we're going to get in the third quarter, so we're bringing a store fleet that has momentum into it with us.

When you look at our strategic initiatives, what I would say is that Backstage is a meaningful part of our comp, and now that we've got it in as many stores as we've got, and we've got it in as many parts of the country, the opportunity to now market that in the fourth quarter is going to help comps there. Vendor direct, having doubled the amount of SKUs online to broaden menus, new categories for our customers online is certainly going to be a piece of our comp. Then the radiated sales that come from both BOPS and BOSS, you're in the 20% to 25% range at an average on every one of those footsteps. We have a lot more activity going through the stores with the fulfillment options that converts digital demand to store traffic and radiated sales.

That's kind of how I would rank all of the options that we have going into the fourth quarter. I think that the last thing I'd say is the momentum that the team has and that when you think about everybody aligned against comp store growth, everybody knows that we're now going up against a fourth quarter that we had comp store growth last year. Highly motivated to meet the customer, where I think that Macy's shines best, which is the fourth quarter. We're very motivated to put another positive comp on the board in fourth quarter this year.

Matthew Boss -- J.P. Morgan Securities -- Analyst

That's great. I'm a big fan of the BOSS initiative.

Operator

Next we'll go to Paul Lejuez with Citigroup.

Paul Lejuez -- Citigroup Global Markets -- Analyst

Thanks, guys. Just one housekeeping thing and then a follow-up. Since, you don't line up the comps, what was the impact if you can share with us from the calendar shift in 3Q? And then for 4Q, which weeks will your comp be based on what weeks will you line those up against versus last year? Then I just wanted to ask a little bit more about the magnet stores and the incremental 100. How should we be thinking about capex, the impact of the investment on these stores into 2019 versus 2018 in terms of overall capex levels? Thanks.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

I'll start. It's important to keep in mind that we not only had a shift in the calendar, but we also shift our promotional events in order to better serve the customers. As we said earlier in the year, had we reported our comparable sales on a shifted like-for-like-week basis, we would have experienced a slight detriment to the comp in the spring and a slight benefit to the comp in the fall. Then your second question, we would use the same weeks that we used at the beginning of the year.

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Paul, to your second question about Growth100, we finally have a real scalable model in the amount of capital that we are spending. So it depends on what the store is, but just the average is really $2.5 to $3 million that we've been spending. That is giving us, and depending on what the store is, that could be an investment in certainly all the customer amenities, but then also putting new businesses like Backstage or Big Ticket into those buildings. We have that formula now set. Some of those initiatives are giving us a nice return on investment, and some we're watching right now, but we know we have the right formula to make the adjustments going into 2019. So except in the 100 stores that we're spending in that $2.5 to $3 million range per store in order to get those next 100 right.

Paul Lejuez -- Citigroup Global Markets -- Analyst

Gotcha. Just to clarify, Paula, did you say the third quarter was helped or hurt by the calendar?

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

So what we said in the first time is that had we had shifted the comp, we would have had a slight detriment to the comp in the spring and a slight benefit to the comp in the fall. That's had we have done the shift to like-for-like.

Paul Lejuez -- Citigroup Global Markets -- Analyst

Great. Thank you. Good luck.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

We didn't comment, by the way, on the third quarter. This is all with respect to the first half and second half.

Paul Lejuez -- Citigroup Global Markets -- Analyst

Thanks.

Operator

Next we'll go to Chuck Grom with Gordon, Haskett.

Charles Grom -- Gordon, Haskett Capital -- Analyst

Thanks. Good morning. A nice uptick here in the number of transactions. I think you said, Paula, 3.8%. I was just wondering if you could unpack that for us and if you think that is sustainable here into 4Q? Then on the guide, I think you originally said gross margins in the third quarter was be a little bit worse than the fourth quarter. I'm just wondering if you're still holding that guide?

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

On the AURs, was it the AURs that you're asking for or the transactions?

Charles Grom -- Gordon, Haskett Capital -- Analyst

Transactions.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

Transactions were up 3.8% in the quarter. That's basically due to our initiatives and our increased engagement from our loyalty customer, especially our platinum customer. She's shopping more with us. What was the second part of your question, Chuck?

Charles Grom -- Gordon, Haskett Capital -- Analyst

Just on the gross margins, you originally expected the fourth quarter to be better than the third quarter. The third quarter came in better than you expected. So just wondering if you still feel that the fourth quarter could still be better?

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

We're pleased with the strength of our gross margin in the third quarter, as well year-to-date. It gives us more confidence than we had at the start of the fall season in the annual guidance. For now, we're sticking with our guidance. Annual gross margin up slightly. We're not guiding the quarters, but I think you can back in.

Charles Grom -- Gordon, Haskett Capital -- Analyst

Okay, fair enough. Then Jeff, on store segmentation, it sounds a little bit similar to what Kohl's has done with their standard mall effort. Just wondering if you could frame out for us the opportunity over the next couple of years on inventory, labor, merchandise margins, all three of which Kohl's has seen a benefit from?

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Yes, what I'd say is we have a lot of economic models now at our disposal that really help on the inventory and the gross margin conversation. When you think about vendor direct, very little rights, as you know in inventory there. When you look at what we're doing with lease or what we're doing with retail as a service, new economic models that really mitigate risk and just add a lot of experience and new content for the customer. What I'd say is there's a big difference in our store portfolio versus some of our competitors.

When you're looking at some of these flagships and the volume that they command and the bones of those particular stores, those are really unique experiences in retail today. On both really the Bloomingdale's, as well as on the Macy's side. So let's take full advantage of those. We have a multi-year strategy to really increase the interest in those particular buildings. On these magnet stores, really the magnet is the draw.

So you've got these regional malls that draw lots of customers. At the same time that we are really changing the chemistry and the content and experiences in these buildings, so are all our mall developers in these malls. So what you see them doing is they're really mixing their square footage. They're pulling out more apparel and accessories. They're adding more entertainment and food and beverage. They're making these more destinations. We're doing the same thing within our buildings.

What we're finding is that when you get to the customer insights about whatever that particular major market is, how often they're going from a neighborhood store to a magnet store, that really is informing what our long-range strategy is within them. So that's how we're looking at it. We're looking at our neighborhood stores about how do we make them more efficient? What do we do with excess space? How do we make that an additive experience for a customer? That's what we're focused on right now that we're in the testing phase with.

Charles Grom -- Gordon, Haskett Capital -- Analyst

Great.

Operator

As a reminder, we'd like to remind everyone to please limit themselves to one question to allow everyone an opportunity to ask a question. Next we'll go to Paul Trussell with Deutsche Bank.

Paul Trussell -- Deutsche Bank Securities -- Analyst

Good morning. On the top line, I think you mentioned that weather was a benefit toward quarter end. Could you just speak to the cadence of comps? So we assume that they improved as the quarter progressed, and has that cold weather benefit continued quarter-to-date, or any other color you can provide on early November trends? Then just on the credit card revenue. Again, a meaningful increase year-over-year. You've raised the outlook. I know loyalty is playing a factor, but just help us understand the magnitude of the gains and is there anything else that we should keep in mind playing a role there?

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Paul, I'm going to take the weather question, and then I'm going to let Paula take the loyalty question. As it relates to the traffic in the quarter, all three months were positive. October was the best of the three months, and a lot of that was related to the cold weather snap that we had. That really is across all cold weather categories. So what Paula had said earlier about the Northeast and particularly the Midwest area, all benefited from certainly cold weather on that.

You know I can't comment about November and how that's starting. But what I would say just in general is with remarkable consistency, when you look at a cold weather calendar and the business in the fall season, how you trend in the third quarter is a remarkably similar percentage of the overall fall business in cold weather. So we know that our cold weather business in the fourth quarter is not affected by earlier demand, if you will, that's pulled from the fourth quarter. We feel very comfortable in our cold weather business. We had good increases of that in the third quarter. We expect to have the same increases in the fourth quarter.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

I would say that our credit program is integral and fully intertwined with our overall retail strategy. It is the primary vehicle for delivering our enhanced loyalty program, and nearly half of our sales occur on our proprietary credit card. Our loyalty program very effective, as you heard earlier, in improving engagement and spending with our best customers, especially at the platinum tier. That also benefits the credit program.

Our partnership with Citi has worked well and it's helped us to generate a revenue stream that continues to grow, driven by higher credit sales and proprietary card balances. We are seeing slower payments on those card balances, but the quality of the credit balances continues to be good. In terms of what you can expect to see, we've guided $740 to $755 million in the year. That reflects the improvement that we're seeing, and so we expect that to occur over the fourth quarter, and that's been reflected there.

Operator

Next we'll go to Omar Saad with Evercore ISI.

Omar Saad -- Evercore ISI -- Analyst

Thanks, good morning. Thanks for all the information. Jeff, I wanted to follow up on the BOPS and BOSS discussions you're having. Maybe help us with some examples or anecdotes how different customers are using those options, especially when you think about the underlying traffic strength in your business and merch margin strength in your business, some of that getting depleted away for shipping and returns. How do you think about the BOPS and BOSS dynamic maybe alleviating shipping and returns costs over time as you get customers into stores? Are you incentivizing the customers to come and guests to come into the stores given the attachment rates when they come in to pick up these purchases? Have you toyed around with that, given the attachment rates and the savings again on shipping and returns? Thanks.

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Good questions, Omar. What I'd tell you is that to your last question, we have not. We've debated it. Do we need to do that? Do we need to give them an incentive? I would tell you that of the quarter, of all the initiatives that we have, BOSS has been a surprise about how quickly this has taken on and how big this business has become for us. The customers love the option.

I think a lot of it comes down to the store segmentation strategy. What you're seeing with BOSS and BOPS is that those neighborhood stores, those smaller neighborhood stores, they have a much higher penetration of their overall traffic being generated by fulfillment options, which I guess makes some sense because when you look at what we curate in individual stores assortment, you don't have the same breadth of assortment in a smaller door as you do in a magnet or a flagship.

So as a result of that, now you've got customers who are not either comfortable in shipping something directly to their home because they're not there, they're working, or they want to feel it, they want to touch it by coming into the building. They're taking advantage of BOSS. What we're seeing is that the radiated sales that come from a BOPS purchase and a BOSS purchase is pretty similar. Check that box. That part is good for us. We know what those footsteps do.

When you look at the average unit retail or the transaction that is coming with the BOSS order versus a BOPS order, it is lower. So that would basically say that customers that are not part of a gold or a platinum level where they get free shipping, they're foregoing the need to pay for shipping by taking advantage of BOSS. But as people are getting more used to this, I think we're going to see where it goes. We're in the beginning stages of this. We really churn BOSS full across the horn in the fourth quarter, and we're still measuring all the results of it, but so far, very good. The dynamics of this are really strong. It's really helping us in our neighborhood store traffic. It's been very positive thus far.

Omar Saad -- Evercore ISI -- Analyst

Very helpful, Jeff. Thanks. Good luck.

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Next we'll go to Kimberly Greenberger with Morgan Stanley.

Kimberly Greenberger -- Morgan Stanley & Co. -- Analyst

Okay, wonderful. Thank you so much. Good morning. I had a quick question on following up, Jeff, on your comments about the sequential improvement in stores that you've seen here over the last four quarters. Are we back to positive traffic in stores? The transaction growth this quarter was very strong, obviously. I'm just wondering if that's being largely driven by digital or are you seeing positive transaction growth in stores? Then I just wanted to follow up on Paul's question about the fourth quarter comp calculation. Understanding you'll compare 13 weeks this year to 13 weeks last year in the fourth quarter, does that comp calculation clock start on the first week of the quarter, November 4th? Or do you exclude the first week of November you're your comp calculation and start the clock with the week beginning November 11th?

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

I'm going to address the first one, Kimberly, which is really the sequential improvement in stores. All of the stores are performing better this year versus last year, and it has gotten progressively better. When you look at some of these stores, they definitely have positive comps and some of them are getting quite healthy. Let's just talk about some of the individual parts.

When you look at the Growth50 stores, that's a very positive comp story when you look at those. Some of those stores were negative comps in previous quarters before we put in the investment. When you look at what Backstage is doing, Backstage is a separate part. For those stores where Backstage has been open more than a year, the whole portfolio of those stores have high single-digit comps, so that's good news. Obviously, we've got certain businesses that are positive comps in stores, but the aggregate store, be it with Backstage as a subset or the full store that doesn't have Backstage, we've got a number of stores in our portfolio now that are demonstrably better than they were in the beginning of the year. They get better each quarter. We believe that trend is going to continue across all store types as we get into 2019.

When you look at the profitability of those stores, with many of those have fixed expenses, the profitability picture improves for the overall company when the store's comp gets better. So that's very healthy for us. Then when you look at the economics of online, and you look at a larger portion of the online demand being fulfilled through either BOPS or BOSS, and the radiated sales that come from that, that also helps the profitability picture. But again, when we look at both online or stores and look at as kind of a separate thing, it gets really murky.

We really look at the full customer journey because she's shopping in all channels and all categories and in many cases, many stores. So we've got to look at how one particular experience will have an effect on another experience or another transaction, so we look at the full customer journey versus the individual pieces. But in aggregate, store are improving.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

Kimberly, I would say that in terms of how we look at the comp in the fourth quarter, it will be similar to how we've been looking at it in all the previous three quarters. We will exclude the same week from Q4 that we did last year.

Kimberly Greenberger -- Morgan Stanley & Co. -- Analyst

Thank you.

Operator

Next we'll go to Lorraine Hutchinson with Bank of America.

Lorraine Hutchinson -- Bank of America Merrill Lynch -- Analyst

Thank you. Good morning. I just wanted to understand the dynamic behind the SG&A growth this quarter. The 3% dollar growth was the highest we've seen in some time. Is this the new run rate going forward or was there anything that was pulled into the third quarter that may not continue in 4Q in 2019?

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

Lorraine, in the fourth quarter, we had elevated SG&A and that's due to the investments in our strategic initiatives, particularly in Backstage. We rolled out 60 Backstages in the third quarter, and so you're seeing the impact of that. In terms of what you can expect for the balance of the year, I would just look to the SG&A guide. We haven't changed it. We are guiding that SG&A will be up slightly in dollars, but that our rate will be approximately the same.

Lorraine Hutchinson -- Bank of America Merrill Lynch -- Analyst

I understand you don't want to talk too much about next year, but I think it's important, given that you do plan to roll out an incremental 100 Growth50s. If we could get some sense of where you're thinking about SG&A or if there are offsets, that would be very helpful.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

Again, we will continue to invest in the strategic initiatives that we know are working from our test, iterate, and scale approach. We have a long track record of being very disciplined on expenses, even while we're investing for growth. And so through the funding our future point on our Northstar strategy, we have a multi-year focus on managing expenses, and that will help us to fund our strategic initiatives that are driving the improved sales growth that you're seeing. We have already a number of cost savings and productivity initiatives that are beginning to be unleashed through our use of analytics and technology, and so we'll build on those as we develop our multi-year view and our program. So look to hear more about that later.

Operator

Next we'll go to Bob Drbul with Guggenheim Securities.

Robert Drbul -- Guggenheim Securities -- Analyst

Hi, I just a question around competition. I just wondered if you could talk a little bit what you're seeing from the competition both online and the bricks-and-mortar? And if you're seeing any impact to your business from the Sears liquidation sales?

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Obviously, Bob, we look at competition all the time, both online and in our stores. When you think about what we set out to do with the Northstar strategy, it is really what is Macy's unique competitive advantage and how do we distort that in a more fulsome way. So we're really focused on, when you think about the point on the star, if it's about it, it must be Macy's, which is about what we're doing with really localized, but really exclusive content, we spend a lot of time with our manufacturing partners that create specific content for us, as well as our own private brands.

When you look at that in the context of having a really strong mobile business and a really strong digital business, that is really where we know we can compete and compete well. We're really focused now on experience as it relates to cable stakes experience about removing the friction from the customer journey, but then also what do we add that Macy's can uniquely do. So that would be what we're doing with STORY, which we haven't announced yet, but what will STORY be within Macy's; what we're doing wit the Market at Macy's; all of what we're doing with VR and AR. Those are all pieces that we are putting a lot of initiative against. But then what we are doing with our in-store colleagues in those businesses where that touch matters. And what we're doing with special events and trunk shows. Those are all things that increase the experience.

When I look to your question about Sears, we've been dealing with Sears for a number of years as their business has declined or as they've dropped out of particular malls. As you would probably expect, we have very little customer overlap with Sears. I don't see that affecting us much. When I look at something like Bon Ton, when that goes out of the Midwest, that definitely affected us. So when you look at some of our strongest districts have been in those districts that competed against Bon Ton. When you think about the arsenal of products that Bon Ton carries, the brands and the categories, Macy's you would expect would be a recipient of that.

So beauty, business, some of the best brands that we would be the place where that customer would look for it. So we've done a lot of outreach to those customers. We've done a lot of outreach to those stores that closed in terms of their great colleagues, their great management, making sure that we knew who they were. We brought them into our stores that were nearby.

We've been aggressive about going after so that customer wouldn't be disappointed with losing that competitor out of that market and figuring out this is a place where you can come and get continuation of either the sales colleague that you enjoyed when you were at another location or a brand that you were used to seeing. That one did affect us, and that is helping our overall Midwest business.

Omar Saad -- Evercore ISI -- Analyst

Great. Thank you very much.

Operator

Next we'll go to Alexandra Walvis with Goldman Sachs.

Alexandra Walvis -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Good morning, guys. Thanks for the question. We wanted to ask another one about the new store segmentation strategy. As you think longer term about that strategy, what proportion of sales are you expecting to deliver through flagships, magnet stores, and neighborhood stores? Then one clarification question on the magnet stores specifically. You mentioned that you're going from the Growth50 stores, now rolling out another 100 next year. Will that be the total base of magnet stores or is there potential to make that a bigger group?

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Alexandra, the first question is we're not going to break out what percent of our portfolio was in each of the three buckets, but all three of them are sizable is what I'd say. To the second part of your question, the next 100 magnet stores will not complete the list. There will be a slug of others that would go based on what we learned, what the return on investments of those are. When we have the Growth50 going to the next 100, there will be more that we would do in future years.

Operator

Next we'll go to Dana Telsey with Telsey Advisory Group.

Dana Telsey -- Telsey Advisory Group -- Analyst

Hi, good morning. Nice to see the progress. As you think about the gross margin, it was impressive on the merchandise margin offsetting the delivery expense. Are you achieving scale or economies of scale in delivering expense that's allowing this to come through? How do you think about the buckets of opportunity for that merchandise margin or reg price as compared to delivery expense? Thank you.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

We have been expanding our gross margin merchandise margin all year. That's been based on the discipline that we have with inventory management, as well as using the data analytics to inform our various inventory decisions. That's been helping us to sell more full-price selling our merchandise, and to price better. So we're looking at opportunities there. We'll continue to impact our merchandise margins.

On delivery expenses, we're also looking at those very closely as well in terms of how we can be more efficient. We have a number of activities under way there, such as BOPS and BOSS that are helping on our delivery expenses. So we're focused on both of those two components, and we're seeing progress in both of those two components.

Dana Telsey -- Telsey Advisory Group -- Analyst

Then just on tourism, what did you see on tourism? How did it differ from the second quarter and how are you planning it? Thank you.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

So, Dana, we saw, you'll recall in the first half of the year, 6% improvement in our international tourism business. In the third quarter, our tourism business was down 4.2%, so year-to-date we're up 2.5%.

Operator

Next we'll go to Priya Ohri-Gupta with Barclays.

Priya Ohri-Gupta -- Barclays Capital -- Analyst

Thank you so much for taking the call. Paula, I was just wondering if you could give us your thoughts on how we should think about where you plan to manage your leverage going forward? You're pretty comfortably within your range. Should we expect any further debt paydown over the remainder of the year, given your comments on deploying excess free cash flow toward that paydown this year? Thanks.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

Sure. We continue to target our leverage ratio of 2.5% to 2.8%. A healthy balance sheet is very important to us. As we said, we'll use that excess cash to pay down further debt and to get closer to our target ratio.

Operator

Next we'll go to Brian Tunick with Royal Bank of Canada.

Brian Tunick -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Thanks. Good morning. I was curious on your views about capex needs going forward. I guess talking and hearing from Jeff on these different initiatives for next year accelerating. Just curious how we should view capex maybe next year or the next couple of years? Have you guys figured out either a lower capex spend per store as you've done the Backstage or Growth50 initiatives? Just generally how should we be thinking about that? Then maybe, Jeff, on the vendor direct and the mobile numbers you've cited, have you changed your view of maybe how high e-commerce can mix at the company over the next few years? Are there any new distribution centers or other capex needs in order to maintain that growth? Thank you very much.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

Look for us to continue to invest in our strategic initiatives next year and to have around a similar investment next year in terms of capex. As a percent of sales, we're still well within line, and so around the same amount or a little bit more next year.

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

What I'd say, Brian, just to add to what Paula just said about, I think that you can depend on from us is really a balanced investment strategy against maintaining where we're going with really robust digital growth, but also getting our brick-and-mortar fleet healthier. We know that we can't do one without the other, so investing in digital and mobile is very important, but equally investing in stores. So as Paula said, the capital outlay for 2019 expect to see it the same as what we were in 2018, give or take.

Then to your second quarter about where fulfillment or where the overall digital demand is going to go, we do see that continuing to build as a percentage. But what I'd say is that there's so many more fulfillment opportunities for us outside of building mega centers. And so again, when you start to look at some of this excess space in neighborhood stores that are in every one of our major markets, there's opportunities to redeploy that square footage. The opportunity basically with more economic models with hold-and-flow opportunities. We're going to be looking at lots of opportunities for us to take fuller advantage of data analytics and getting the most out of the inventory that we flow closer in need to where customers are and when they want to purchase something. We'll be giving you more detail on that as we outline all of our 2019 plans, but it's very much on our mind.

Operator

Next we'll go to Michael Binetti with Credit Suisse.

Michael Binetti -- Credit Suisse Securities -- Analyst

Hey, guys. Good morning. Thanks for taking our questions here. I just want to ask you first on the credit line. We're just trying to back out some of the math on the fourth quarter. It looks like it's implied to be slightly negative in the fourth quarter. Obviously, the most recent trends have been better than that. But obviously, you're lapping loyalty, but I'm not sure how much of that is a one-time step up in the third quarter or what it means for the next 12 months.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

In terms of our credit, we're guided at $740 to $755 million. That would imply a range for -- just doing the math, versus where we were in Q3 of $207 to $227 million. In terms of -- tell me the second question?

Michael Binetti -- Credit Suisse Securities -- Analyst

Well, I'm just curious since that's guided to slightly lower in the fourth quarter year-over-year, but you've been seeing such big gains lately. I know you're lapping loyalty. But I'm just trying to think of how much the, so should we assume that the third quarter growth we saw in credit was really one-time or what we can extrapolate going forward multi-quarter into next year on credit?

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

Have you contemplated a 53rd week?

Michael Binetti -- Credit Suisse Securities -- Analyst

Oh, OK. So if we look at that. Maybe you could unpack what drove so much growth in the third quarter for us between the drivers of interchange fees, higher balances, credit score changes. I know you said, you gave a few comments earlier. But just if you could help us think about that. You also mentioned that the quality of credit was quite high, but that the balances it sounded like were going higher as well. I didn't know how to reconcile those two comments.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

The credit sales are higher, again, driven by our loyalty program. The balances also are higher, and that's driven by the sales. But also we're seeing slower payments. That is just because our customer is deciding to pay slower. The quality of the accounts receivable continues to be high. The other thing is we're seeing slightly lower fraud charges. So there are a lot of positives in there, but the biggest thing is credit sales and the higher corresponding balances.

Michael Binetti -- Credit Suisse Securities -- Analyst

Okay, that's helpful. Maybe if I could go back to Lorraine's question just asked a different way. I think given some of the commentary you've given on the store plan for next year and the capex related to the Wall Street Journal story. I guess how should we think about how that influences the P&L on the SG&A line next year? You mentioned you have some cost containment plans that you've already told us about. I'm just wondering if that lets you, puts you in a position to lever SG&A as we look out multi-quarter or into next year given the growth plans you've mentioned?

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

We're developing our plans for 2019. We'll talk about those more on subsequent calls. But again, we will be investing next year and we will also be mitigating our investments as best we can through cost savings. The other thing I should say is that to the extent that we have been investing, we're already seeing returns on those investments, so all of that will be helpful as well.

Operator

That does conclude today's question-and-answer session. I'll now turn the call back over to Jeff Gennette for any additional comments or closing remarks.

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, everybody. Appreciated all your questions.

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

Thank you.

Operator

That does conclude today's conference. We thank you for your participation. You may now disconnect.

Duration: 59 minutes

Call participants:

Jeff Gennette -- Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Paula A. Price -- Chief Financial Officer

Monica Koehler -- Vice President, Investor Relations and Finance

Matthew Boss -- J.P. Morgan Securities -- Analyst

Paul Lejuez -- Citigroup Global Markets -- Analyst

Charles Grom -- Gordon, Haskett Capital -- Analyst

Paul Trussell -- Deutsche Bank Securities -- Analyst

Omar Saad -- Evercore ISI -- Analyst

Kimberly Greenberger -- Morgan Stanley & Co. -- Analyst

Lorraine Hutchinson -- Bank of America Merrill Lynch -- Analyst

Robert Drbul -- Guggenheim Securities -- Analyst

Alexandra Walvis -- Goldman Sachs -- Analyst

Dana Telsey -- Telsey Advisory Group -- Analyst

Priya Ohri-Gupta -- Barclays Capital -- Analyst

Brian Tunick -- RBC Capital Markets -- Analyst

Michael Binetti -- Credit Suisse Securities -- Analyst

More M analysis

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