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Ross Stores, inc (ROST) Q3 2021 Earnings Call Transcript

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ROST earnings call for the period ending October 30, 2021.

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Ross Stores, inc (ROST -0.41%)
Q3 2021 Earnings Call
Nov 18, 2021, 4:15 p.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good afternoon, and welcome to the Ross Stores' Third Quarter 2021 Earnings Release Conference Call. The call will begin with prepared comments by management followed by a question-and-answer session. [Operator Instructions]

Before we get started, on behalf of Ross Stores, I would like to note that the comments made on this call will contain forward-looking statements regarding expectations about future growth and financial results, including sales and earnings forecasts, new store openings, COVID-related costs and other matters that are based on the Company's current forecast of aspects of its future business. These forward-looking statements are subject to risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from historical performance or current expectations. Risk factors are included in today's press release and the Company's fiscal 2020 Form 10-K and fiscal 2021 Form 10-Qs and 8-Ks on file with the SEC.

Now I'd like to turn the call over to Barbara Rentler, Chief Executive Officer.

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Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

Good afternoon. Joining me on our call today are Michael Hartshorn, Group President and Chief Operating Officer; and Connie Kao, Group Vice President, Investor Relations. And I'd also like to welcome Adam Orvos, our recently appointed Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer.

We'll begin our call today with a review of our third quarter performance followed by an update on our outlook for the fourth quarter and fiscal year. Afterwards, we'll be happy to respond to any questions you may have.

As noted in today's press release, third quarter sales and profitability significantly exceeded our expectations as consumers continue to respond favorably to our broad assortment of great bargains. We achieved these results despite waning government stimulus and uncertainty related to the spread of COVID variant. Earnings per share for the 13 weeks ended October 30, 2021 were $1.09 on net income of $385 million. This compares to $1.03 per share on net earnings of $371 million for the 13 weeks ended November 2, 2019.

Total sales for the quarter rose 19% to $4.6 billion with strong comparable store sales increase of 14%. For the first nine months, earnings per share were $3.82 on net earnings of $1.4 billion, up from $3.32 per share on net income of $1.2 billion for the same period in 2019. Sales for the first nine months of this year rose 20% to $13.9 billion with comparable store sales up 14%.

For the third quarter at Ross, children and men's were the best performing businesses, while the Midwest and Southeast were the top performing regions. dd's DISCOUNTS trends remained strong during the period as their sales performance also significantly exceeded our expectations. However, like Ross, dd's profitability was negatively impacted by cost pressures related to freight, wages and COVID.

At quarter end, total consolidated inventories were up 3%, while average selling store inventories were down 1% versus 2019. Packaway levels ended at 31% of the total compared to 39% for the same period in 2019 as we continue to use a substantial amount of packaway merchandise to support ahead of planned sales. In addition, there were receipt delays due to supply chain congestion.

Turning to store growth. We completed our expansion program for 2021 with the addition of 18 new Ross and 10 dd's DISCOUNTS in third quarter. For the full year, we added 65 locations comprised of 44 Ross and 21 dd's DISCOUNTS. Additionally, we plan to close 1 store by year-end. As previously mentioned, we expect to return to our normal annual opening program of approximately 100 stores in 2022.

Now Adam Orvos will provide further details on our third quarter results, fourth quarter guidance and updated outlook for the year.

Adam Orvos -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, Barbara. As previously stated, comparable store sales were up 14% in the quarter. The increase was mainly driven by a larger average basket with traffic down slightly versus 2019. Operating margin of 11.4% was well above our guidance range. As expected, the decline in overall profitability versus 2019 was mainly due to ongoing headwinds from higher freight, wage and COVID-related costs.

Cost of goods sold grew by 85 basis points in the quarter. Domestic freight expenses increased 125 basis points, while higher ocean freight costs negatively impacted merchandise margin, which declined by 40 basis points. Buying also rose by 10 basis points. These higher expenses were partially offset by occupancy and distribution leverage of 65 and 25 basis points, respectively.

SG&A for the period grew 15 basis points as leverage from the strong sales gain was offset by COVID expenses and higher incentive costs given our better-than-expected third quarter results. Total net COVID related costs for the period were approximately 35 basis points, the vast majority of which impacted SG&A.During the third quarter, we repurchased 2.1 million shares of common stock for an aggregate cost of $241 million. We remain on track to buyback a total of $650 million in stock for the year.

Now let's discuss our fourth quarter guidance. As a reminder, our projections compared to the same period in 2019. Looking ahead, while we are encouraged by the ongoing strength of consumer demand, there remains significant uncertainty related to the worsening industrywide supply chain congestion as we enter the important holiday season. As a result, and while we hope to do better, we are forecasting comparable store sales to be up 7% to 9% with earnings per share projected in the range of $0.83 to $0.93 for the 13 weeks ending January 29, 2022.

The operating statement assumptions that support our fourth quarter guidance include the following. Total sales are projected to grow 10% to 13%. We expect operating margin to be 8.1% to 8.8%. This forecast primarily reflects ongoing pressure from the previously mentioned supply chain headwinds, as well as holiday pay incentives in our stores and distribution centers. In addition, COVID-related costs are projected to negatively impact EBIT margin by approximately 30 basis points in the period.

Net interest expense is estimated to be about $18 million. Our tax rate is expected to be approximately 22% to 23% and weighted average diluted shares outstanding are projected to be about 352 million. Based on our year-to-date results and fourth quarter guidance, we are now forecasting full year comparable store sales gains of 12% to 13% and earnings per share in the range of $4.65 to $4.75 compared to $4.60 in 2019.

Now I'll turn the call back to Barbara for closing comments.

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, Adam. We're encouraged by our above planned sales year-to-date. As Adam noted, uncertainty remains on how industrywide supply chain congestion may negatively affect our business in the fourth quarter. That said, we believe we are well-positioned as a valued retailer and our constant customers will find a broad assortment of great branded bargains in our stores for the holiday season. Moving forward, consumers increasing focus on value and convenience, along with the large number of recent retail closures and bankruptcies, we are confident about our prospects for continued market share gains in the future.

At this point, we'd like to open up the call and respond to any questions you may have.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

Thank you. [Operator Instructions] We have our first question coming from the line of Matthew Boss with J.P. Morgan. Your line is open.

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

Thanks, and congrats on a nice quarter. So Barbara with 3 straight quarters from 13% to 15% 2-year comp, could you elaborate on market share gains tied to value and convenience that you're seeing? And then given the closures and bankruptcies that you cited, how would you best characterize product availability in the marketplace today?

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

Matthew. Hi, it's Michael Hartshorn. On market share gains, longer term, we're very excited about the market share opportunity ahead of us. We're in a very healthy sector retail with the consumer even more focused as you mentioned on value and convenience. We've clearly gained market share during the pandemic and are confident about our future prospects for further gains given the significant number of retail closures and bankruptcies.

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

And Matthew, in terms of product availability, I would say, it's a good time to be a buyer. Maybe, not in every category, but some areas are very good, others are inconsistent, but overall, it's favorable even with store closures, one would expect that over time as after COVID, as retail settles that the market will get more bullish on creating more goods. So right now we really feel good about market availability.

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

That's great. Best of luck.

Operator

Thank you. We have our next question coming from the line of Mark Altschwager with Baird. Your line is open.

Mark Altschwager -- Baird -- Analyst

Thanks for taking the question, and welcome, Adam. I'm curious, just with the more inflationary backdrop, are you seeing more opportunities to raise ticket, while still maintaining the strong value proposition, or how are you thinking about this lever to offset some of the ongoing freight and expense pressures? Thank you.

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. Look, our pricing model is really built off of other mainstream retailers, and then we provide a discount. So we're very aware of pricing at different levels of distribution and we watch it closely. With that, we've continued to experiment with higher retail in all areas in the new organization. In some cases, it's been absolutely fine, and in some cases, not quite as fine and I wouldn't elaborate more on that in this forum, but what I would say is we would adjust pricing over time once we understand it. We don't know where it's really all going at this point, but we are definitely experimenting with different retailers.

Operator

Thank you. We have our next question coming from the line of Paul Lejuez with Citi. Your line is open.

Paul Lejuez -- Citigroup -- Analyst

Hey guys, thanks. You referenced ongoing strength of consumer demand. I was curious if that was a comment on fourth quarter to to-date, if you're seeing that continue? You also referenced worsening industrywide supply chain congestion, and I'm curious if that's hurting you thus far in 4Q to a greater degree than what you saw in 3Q? And big picture, I'm wondering if you think that congestion will ultimately be good for your business either in fourth quarter or into '22? Thanks.

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

Hi, Paul. We are seeing a very healthy consumer. When we came into the quarter, we were worried about the delta variant and also the receding government stimulus, but we've continued to see a very healthy consumer with strong demand for us across geographies, merchandise areas and you can see relatively across retail one that is increasingly focused on price value.

On the freight front, we've taken a number of actions to ready ourselves for the holiday selling period including adjusting our order in times, we chartered our own ocean vessel and we've been purchasing at market rate capacity to make sure we have enough ocean freight to move goods. You can see that certainly in our margins for the quarter, merchant margin was impacted by ocean freight that we weren't able to offset with merchant margin down about 40 basis points.

I wouldn't comment on the impact in the third quarter. The congestion right now is squarely focused on the port and getting goods out of the port.

Paul Lejuez -- Citigroup -- Analyst

Thanks. And the merchandise margin, you said is down 40 basis points. You said that was impacted by ocean, can you separate the pure merch margin versus the ocean please?

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

We wouldn't break that out separately; ocean freight is actually included in our merchant margin. Merchant margin ended up better than we expected for the quarter as we had more full price selling and faster turns with the inventory ahead of plan -- our sales ahead of plan.

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

And then I would say as it pertains to the supply chain congestion, it should create more closeout opportunities for us in the future.

Paul Lejuez -- Citigroup -- Analyst

Okay, thanks guys. Good luck.

Operator

Thank you. We have our next question coming from the line of Lorraine Hutchinson with Bank of America. Your line is open.

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

Thank you. Barbara, I know you said, it's a good time to be a buyer. But I just wanted to focus in on any risk around receipt timing ahead of holiday? And then what are you hearing from your vendors going into the spring of next year vis-a-vis product availability in the category if you really want to focus on?

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

Receipt timing ahead of holidays, I think we've taken all the appropriate actions as it pertains to receipt timing whether Michael just said, chartering new vessel, moving in longer lead times, everything to get goods through the ports, but with that we have concerns. Not a given, but we have some concerns. As we think about product for spring, I think vendors have gotten very aggressive in terms of placing goods. I think there is some vendors that are really looking to gain some market share in this timeframe and have taken bigger risks in terms of making commitments. So I think it's very much on who the vendor is and what their strategy is, but in terms of, again, in terms of timing for holidays, we've taken the access we think we need to take, but again, we have some concerns, but it's not a given.

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

Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. We have our next question coming from the line of Kimberly Greenberger with Morgan Stanley. Your line is open.

Kimberly Greenberger -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Okay, great, thanks so much. I just wanted to follow up on the Lorraine's question just about holiday, Barbara. And I just want to make sure I understand you clearly. So how are you feeling about your in-stock levels currently here, call it, middle of November, and how do you feel about your inventory position here for the next sort of 6 weeks of holiday selling? If you could just give us a little bit of color just on the short term. And then I wanted to ask a couple of other questions, if I could,

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

Kimberly, on inventory position, currently, we're in good shape. We ended the quarter with average in-store inventories down about 1% which is where we wanted them to be and we continue to have a fresh flow of product. There are a lot of receipts between now and the next 6 weeks and there could be some risk in areas like home that as Barbara mentioned are not a given, but we reflected that risk in our guidance at 7% to 9%.

Kimberly Greenberger -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Okay, got it. And is it-- are the receipt risk concentrated in home because that's where you would have call it more of a direct import or more of the direct imports would be impacting that area and those would be the items that would be either stuck in ports or on ocean going vessels?

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

Correct. Correct.

Kimberly Greenberger -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Okay.

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

I mean...

Kimberly Greenberger -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Great.

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

I mean, with 6 weeks left maybe stuck in port.

Kimberly Greenberger -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Maybe stuck in port. Okay, perfect. That is great. Okay. And then on the quarter, Michael or Adam whoever wants to address this, you talked about larger basket size. I'm wondering if you can talk about the average unit retail versus the units per transaction, what's driving that? And then you know just longer term following up on the question with regard to pricing, I'm not sure if you have taken a look at where you're sitting competitively versus peers, but is there, I know there are some of your peers looking at some surgical price increases in some categories. I'm just wondering if you've taken a look at your pricing and rebenchmarked it recently, and if you have any thoughts on that? Thanks so much.

Adam Orvos -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. This is Adam. Let me jump in on the first part of that question. So our strong comps were driven by size of the basket, which was primarily driven by number of units per transaction. There we did have a slight increase in AUR driven by the better full price selling given the above planned sales. And then as we mentioned, there was a slight decline in traffic in the quarter.

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

And then as it pertains to the pricing issue, we are definitely experimenting with higher results. And I said in some areas it's working, it's fine, in some areas, it's not fine. I think we'll continue to do that, Kimberly, and fine-tune what the customer is willing to accept as we watch what goes on in mainstream retailers and where their AUR sits, and after we get comfortable, over time, we would consider adjusting the pricing once we really understand it. But as we get ready to enter into Q4, we're not expecting mainstream retailers to promote, but we don't really know that as you get into Q4, and there is really this compressed period of time. So with that, again, merchants are out there trying new things, trying retail things what the customer is willing to accept, but we've kind of need to see both of those things to take, I would say, a larger step.

Kimberly Greenberger -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Perfect. Makes perfect sense. Thanks, Barbara.

Operator

Thank you. We have our next question coming from the line of Chuck Grom with Gordon Haskett. Your line is open.

Chuck Grom -- Gordon Haskett -- Analyst

Thanks very much. I wonder if you guys could speak to the trends of your comp during the quarter. And if you think weather had any impact -- adverse impact particularly in September and October, and any early thoughts on the first couple of weeks of November? It sounds like trend has stayed strong, but just wanted to confirm that.

Adam Orvos -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

This is Adam, I can take that. So comps were strong throughout the quarter. And really no, no, the weather impact was very immaterial in the quarter. And we wouldn't comment on intra-quarter trends.

Chuck Grom -- Gordon Haskett -- Analyst

Got it. Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. We have our next question coming from the line of Michael Binetti with Credit Suisse. Your line is open.

Michael Binetti -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Hey guys, thanks for taking my questions here. I'm just curious as you look at the guidance, what you guys are seeing in the business that helped you build to a 7% to 9% guidance for fourth quarter. I think the last prior two quarters was 5% to 7%. Just any change in how you built up with it. But then I guess, Michael, can you help -- I know you won't give us a number to Paul's question earlier, but when you think about what you've baked into freight in the fourth quarter, maybe just some directional idea of how that looks relative to third quarter? And then as you look out maybe just thinking about when you're contracts will, how much visibility you have into the first half of next year and help us understand if we should think that that's still going to be an incremental headwind into the first half based on what you guys know today.

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

Sure. Michael, let me generally talk about the fourth quarter guidance. Obviously, in these uncertain times, we believe it's prudent to be conservative, as we always have with our guidance and hope to exceed these estimates. Obviously, the large difference between Q3 is a cautious comp estimate given the potential impact of unpredictable supply chain congestion. The guidance also includes ongoing freight pressure related to the congestion. I would say it's not significantly worse than it was in Q3. It also includes elevated wage related costs due to holiday incentives in both our stores and distribution centers to acknowledge our associates' extraordinary dedication throughout the pandemic. What we'd expect on that is sales above the estimates. We'd expect 15 to 20 basis points of leverage. On freight congestion, I think our view at this point is, we would not expect freight to subside probably through the first half of next year, and then we'll have to see how it trends after that. In terms of what impact that could have, we'll have more to say in our year-end call as we finish up wrapping up our budget cycle.

Michael Binetti -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Okay. If I could follow that, just as you look at some of the AUR initiatives that you are seeing success with, Barbara, do you feel like you have enough at this point to combat that freight pressure in the first half if needed?

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

No, I think where we are now is that we can continue to test the AUR, and then make probably slower moves, so we really understand what that looks like in mainstream retailers.

Michael Binetti -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Got it. Okay, thanks a lot everybody.

Operator

Thank you. We have our next question coming from the line of Jay Sole with UBS. Your line is open.

Jay Sole -- UBS -- Analyst

Great, thank you so much. I just want to know, can you share with us high level, not looking for any specific guidance, but going into first quarter next year, lapping the stimulus, how much of a benefit do you think you got from the stimulus in the first quarter of this year? And how do you think it might play out next year as you are out there, what kind of impact would it have on sales?

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

Yeah. At this point, we wouldn't comment on next year. As I said, we'll have more to say after we wrap up the fourth quarter and provide guidance in our year-end call and in our remarks.

Jay Sole -- UBS -- Analyst

Okay. And maybe if I can just ask one more, then. There's a lot of talk about how the pandemic has changed shopping and consumers maybe adopting more of an omnichannel method. If you look at the operating income growth for your department store competitors over the last three quarters, it's up over 100% versus off-prices up more like, 10%. Do you feel at all, like something has changed where maybe the department stores are catching up a little bit, and if not, why not?

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

Catching up in what regard?

Jay Sole -- UBS -- Analyst

Just catching up in the way that like, you've outgrown them in terms of sales. You mentioned the market share gains that you've taken have outgrown in terms of profit, but maybe they're getting closer to competing and then being may or maybe not necessarily maintain the same level of sales, but maybe getting more profitable, which ultimately could be an advantage that could use to sort of catch up in other ways as well.

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

Yeah, I think overall, we'll have to see how it plays out. I mean, we're still in this burst of economic activity where demand is exceeding supply, I think we'd have to understand what happens when it's a greater balance between supply and demand, which we'll see if that's first quarter or second quarter next year. So it's hard to say at this point.

Jay Sole -- UBS -- Analyst

Okay. Thank you so much.

Operator

Thank you. We have our next question coming from the line of Marni Shapiro with Retail Tracker. Your line is open.

Marni Shapiro -- Retail Tracker -- Analyst

Hey, guys, congratulations. Could you just talk a little bit about two things. As the consumers are back out and about working events, parties have you seen a shift in what she is buying or you continuing to see strength across the board? And then if you can also just touch on with all of the late deliveries in the market, have you been able to still get in the very holiday-rich type of items, Christmas theme items, or were you able to tap into packaways from last year's holiday to make sure that that was on the floor in time?

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning. We have seen a shift to the customer. Look, we've always had a big casual business. Let me start with that. That's always been a big business for us. And certainly, during the pandemic that business got even bigger and stronger for us, but what we have seen is we have seen the customer make a shift back into what you're looking for is holiday, bliss, dress-up, social hungover launch. We have seen the customer make that shift into holiday product, and also just more into more mainstream sportswear. So a little bit of both. So casual is still very good, still a business that we believe in, and will expand and get greater, but she is making a shift with respect to workers, she is going out for evenings, whatever she is doing. We have seen that, yeah.

Marni Shapiro -- Retail Tracker -- Analyst

What about, like in the home, and like bags, like those kinds of bags to go back to work or the home area. If she is going back to work and not thinking about her home, or it's not trend right now?

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

You're saying like in handbags?

Marni Shapiro -- Retail Tracker -- Analyst

Yeah. Has she shifted into handbags as she's going out again or out of home and into apparel more of those kinds of bigger shifts as well.

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

I think anything where she is leaving a house is on the apparel side has taken the shift whether it's in footwear, whether it's in handbags, she hasn't replenished or replaced a lot of those products in a long time.

Marni Shapiro -- Retail Tracker -- Analyst

Exactly.

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

So yes, we are seeing a shift back into into some of those businesses as she goes out and she wants new things. So whether it's home or apparel of the morning, I would say both businesses have been relatively similar in sales theme, so she's kind of toggling between both growth now, I think she is more encouraged in apparel is because she just doesn't own it.

Marni Shapiro -- Retail Tracker -- Analyst

Yeah, that makes sense. And then just on the packaway.

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

And then on packaway, just do me a favor, just remind me that piece again on packaway, because I think I might have interpreted the holiday piece, can we have packaway question again? Marni?

Operator

Thank you. We have our next question coming from the line of Laura Champine with Loop Capital. Your line is open.

Laura Champine -- Loop Capital -- Analyst

Should we hold up and try to get Marni back or would you prefer fire ahead.

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

Fire ahead. We'll carry out with Marni after the call.

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

Go ahead. We'll find out later.

Laura Champine -- Loop Capital -- Analyst

Okay. Here it goes, I thought the SG&A expense level was really impressive given that I think you're saying the COVID is still an incremental hit. Is this kind of a base level that we can look at as we start to model for next year or what are kind of some of the puts and takes that are keeping despite really strong topline that SG&A expense is staying fairly flat?

Adam Orvos -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. I know I just got to jump in and say COVID has been pretty consistent impact throughout the year and it will be in fourth quarter. We talked about the actions we've taken from a wage standpoint and from an incentive standpoint in our DCs and our stores that those are clearly kind of the biggest movers within SG&A.

Laura Champine -- Loop Capital -- Analyst

Okay.

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

And then, obviously, I would say the 14% comp helps us leverage SG&A significantly.

Laura Champine -- Loop Capital -- Analyst

Got it. Thank you.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] We have our next question coming from the line of Bob Drbul with Guggenheim. Your line is open.

Bob Drbul -- Guggenheim -- Analyst

Hi, good afternoon. Just wondering if you could maybe spend a little bit more time on the labor component and just sort of the wage pressures that you're seeing in labor availability, maybe just give us some insights on that, that would be helpful. Thanks.

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

Sure Bob. It's a very competitive market for talent and we've seen the most competition in our distribution centers. We made some permanent wage increases earlier this year. We also have some retention and incentive to get us through the peak. We're in really good shape. We've been able to staff up the peak in the distribution centers are where they need to be in the stores. Obviously, we have holiday selling ahead of us. We've also have hiring incentives there to make sure we can staff up for peak and we're confident that we're in a good place there as well. Given the competition, we'll remain competitive to make sure that we can -- we'll remain competitive with their pay to make sure we can attract talent and we feel really good about the workforce right now.

Bob Drbul -- Guggenheim -- Analyst

Great, thank you.

Operator

Thank you. We have our next question coming from the line of Adrienne Yih with Barclays. Your line is open.

Adrienne Yih -- Barclays Capital -- Analyst

Congratulations on the progress on top line in the quarter. Barbara, you made a comment during the prepared remarks, you said you should see improvement in kind of closeout buying, and I'm wondering, are you seeing any incrementality in that in increased supply flow from either canceled orders or stranded inventory that could be used for short stay buys and redeployed earlier next year? And then just a clarification question Adam on the freight, the 160 basis point of freight pressure this quarter, fourth quarter similar and then carrying that same level through the first half of '22, is that the implication that you were intending? Thank you.

Adam Orvos -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

I'll start with the freight. I was making no commentary on what the freight cost level will be next year.

Adrienne Yih -- Barclays Capital -- Analyst

Got it.

Adam Orvos -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

I would really answer then in terms of what congestion could look like. Obviously, we'll have some different options this quarter versus before.

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

And then in terms of the content of closeout buying, certainly our expectation is that there will be the full product as retailers of canceled goods because, they are delayed and they can't get to the selling for. So that would be real packaway for fall, for Q3, Q4 of next year, but we do see opportunities on I would guess what you're thinking of is kind of season-less apparel that could well, now through Q1, I believe is combination of both.

Adrienne Yih -- Barclays Capital -- Analyst

Okay, fantastic. Last question if you would, where is the average hourly rate, I seem to recall a few years ago maybe 2018 or 2019, you were sort of committed to the $12 number and that was typically almost $1 higher than the average across the nation. I know you're at the better end of pay, I'm just wondering where that number sits today maybe relative to where Walmart, Target and some others are in that mid-teen range? Thanks.

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

Yeah, we don't disclose the specific wage. We do have a base level at $11, but a significant portion of the chain is under minimum wage. California, for instance, is at $15. So the average wage is well above that baseline.

Adrienne Yih -- Barclays Capital -- Analyst

Fair enough. Thank you very much. And best of luck for holiday.

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. We have our next question coming from the line of Simeon Siegel with BMO Capital Markets. Your line is open.

Simeon Siegel -- BMO Capital Markets -- Analyst

Hi, thanks everyone. Sorry if I missed it, did you say were you expect inventory to end 4Q and then over the next few quarters? And then to the earlier point about outperforming despite waning stimulus, have you guys quantified what you think the benefit was from stimulus and just how you're thinking about the potential impacts as we cycle through that early next year? Thanks a lot.

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

On next year, we wouldn't comment -- we'll comment again at year-end. On inventory, we typically don't guide ahead on inventory levels.

Simeon Siegel -- BMO Capital Markets -- Analyst

So I guess for the stimulus, have you quantified what it was this year. How do you think about the benefit this year?

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

It's really hard because there's a lot of moving parts, because not only stimulus, it's customer pent-up demand. We'll end up developing plans around it as we move into next year, but we haven't quantified that.

Simeon Siegel -- BMO Capital Markets -- Analyst

Understood. Thanks a lot guys. Best of luck for holiday.

Operator

Thank you. We have our next question coming from the line of Ike Boruchow with Wells Fargo. Your line is open.

Jesse Sobelson -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Hi, everyone. This is Jesse Sobelson on for Ike and I was just wondering as we look forward and begin to model next year, would you guys be able to confirm timing of when COVID costs might be able to revert or are you expecting that to sustain these costs are just going to be a part of the business going forward?

Adam Orvos -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

We wouldn't comment specifically on next year, but we would expect -- I would say generally, we would expect COVID costs to come down. They are not wholly -- permanently part of the cost structure.

Jesse Sobelson -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Very good. Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. We have our next question coming from the line of John Kernan with Cowen. Your line is open.

John Kernan -- Cowen -- Analyst

Good afternoon. Thanks for taking my question. Just curious on the margin picture, you obviously outperformed your comp guidance and the EBIT margin was down roughly a 100 basis points from the pre-COVID base in '19, you're guiding it much lower than that albeit on lower comp guidance for the fourth quarter. Just curious, what do you think the biggest levers are to recapture that low teens operating margin that you generated in 2019, there is a lot of inflation across retail, the factories, your vendors, supply chain. Just curious how you think you're going to recapture that pre-COVID level of profitability? Is it really just more comp store sales gains, how do we quantify that?

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

Sure, John. As I said, obviously we're in a very healthy sector of retail, and are confident in our prospects for the market share gains. As we sit here today, it's difficult to predict how much of the inflationary cost headwinds we're experiencing from the burst of economic activity are transitory versus permanent. Some margin recovery will be dependent on where and when those costs stabilize, and of course our sales volume, where we once again, we believe we have a long range large market share opportunity ahead of us. Over time, we would expect to return to double-digit EPS growth on the 3% to 4% comp. We do have initiatives in the company to try to increase efficiencies in our big areas of expense including our stores and distribution centers, but it's going to be largely dependent on the transitory nature of the inflation that we're seeing today.

John Kernan -- Cowen -- Analyst

Got it. Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. We have our last question coming from the line of Tim Vierengel with Northcoast Research. Your line is open.

Tim Vierengel -- Northcoast Research -- Analyst

Thank you. Can you guys remind us of how you're thinking about store footprint and unit growth? And then maybe highlight for us if that environment or setup is getting easier or more difficult as you look forward? Thank you.

Adam Orvos -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Sure. On the real estate front, as we said in our comments, we ended up -- we wrapped up our program for this year, we opened 65 stores, we also said that we expect to return to historical annual program in 2022 of opening 100 stores annually. Overall, the real estate market is good, and we would expect there to be increased supply of available sites given the level of store closures.

Tim Vierengel -- Northcoast Research -- Analyst

Thanks. Sorry, I missed that.

Operator

Thank you. There are no further questions on queue. I would now like to turn the call back over to Barbara Rentler for any closing remarks.

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you for joining us today, and for your interest in Ross Stores. Happy holidays.

Operator

[Operator Closing remarks]

Duration: 42 minutes

Call participants:

Barbara Rentler -- Vice Chair and Chief Executive Officer

Adam Orvos -- Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Michael J. Hartshorn -- Group President and Chief Operating Officer

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

Mark Altschwager -- Baird -- Analyst

Paul Lejuez -- Citigroup -- Analyst

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

Kimberly Greenberger -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Chuck Grom -- Gordon Haskett -- Analyst

Michael Binetti -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Jay Sole -- UBS -- Analyst

Marni Shapiro -- Retail Tracker -- Analyst

Laura Champine -- Loop Capital -- Analyst

Bob Drbul -- Guggenheim -- Analyst

Adrienne Yih -- Barclays Capital -- Analyst

Simeon Siegel -- BMO Capital Markets -- Analyst

Jesse Sobelson -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

John Kernan -- Cowen -- Analyst

Tim Vierengel -- Northcoast Research -- Analyst

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