Shares of Ulta Beauty (NASDAQ:ULTA) have been pummeled since the summer, due to concerns over competitor discounts and a general pessimism about brick-and-mortar retail. The stock's decline is somewhat surprising, as Ulta has posted nothing but blockbuster numbers with regularity; it looks like investors are skeptical the all-star retailer can continue its torrid growth.

Investors will get a glimpse into that future today after the market closes, when Ulta reports third-quarter earnings. Here are some things watch for.

Young woman looking at her laptop while frowning and furrowing her brow.

It's been a frustrating run for Ulta shareholders.  Image source: Getty Images.

The comps picture

For this quarter, Ulta guided for revenue of $1.33 billion to $1.35 billion, comparable-store sales growth of 9%-11%, and earnings per share of $1.63-$1.68.

Investors in the retail space usually emphasize comparable-store sales -- which measure sales at stores that have been open at least a year -- but long-term-oriented investors should always listen to the story behind those numbers. For instance, in the second quarter, Ulta did not do a late-spring promotion, as the company prioritized maintaining margins over extra sales, and still reported comps of an amazing 11.7%.

For the full year, Ulta previously raised comparable sales guidance to 10%-11%, up from 9%-11%, so keep a look out in this report for if the company still believes in those numbers, and if the company raises full-year guidance again.

MAC attack

One of the ways Ulta keeps customers spending more is by featuring in-store boutiques dedicated to fashionable prestige brands. This year, the company began installing MAC boutiques in many of its stores. This was notable because MAC is the No. 1 "prestige" brand in the country, and was previously only available at MAC-branded stores and high-end department stores. Given the declines in department-store traffic, MAC struck up a partnership with Ulta this spring. 

Of note, the MAC brand is owned by Estee Lauder (NYSE: EL), and there was actually some very interesting commentary on this partnership during Estee Lauder's third-quarter conference call (transcript via Seeking Alpha):

MAC roll out in ULTA Beauty in North America has resonated strongly, as approximately half the consumer[s] who purchased MAC products were new or lapsed users of the brand. MAC has become a best-selling makeup brand in the large majority of ULTA Beauty stores where it opened. And based on the strong initial performance, we plan to accelerate its expansion there.

One brand alone will not make or break Ulta's earnings, but any hints about MAC's success or an expanded partnership could help allay investor fears.

Going uptown

Ulta opened its first store in Manhattan on Nov. 10, on 86th street and Third Avenue, on the Upper East Side. This is part of Ulta's expansion into high-cost urban areas, which the suburban-oriented retailer now has the confidence (and balance sheet) to try. The Manhattan store will feature the MAC boutique, as well as brow services by Benefit and skin services by Dermatologica.

While it's too early to tell if Ulta's Manhattan invasion is successful, the company also opened stores in Santa Monica and Chicago earlier this year, so keep an ear out if management thinks these stores are generating enough traffic to support further urban penetration.

Buybacks

Finally, since Ulta's stock price has declined significantly, there may be some commentary regarding Ulta's share repurchase program. The company currently has a $425 million repurchase program in place, of which $268 million remained at the end of the second quarter. The company has no debt and $270 million in cash on the balance sheet, and made $470 million in net income over the past 12 months. Therefore, it's possible the company could have stepped up the program as the stock declined, and it's possible the company could even increase the program.

Ulta's earnings report will be one to watch with the potential for lots of good news for investors.

Billy Duberstein owns shares of Ulta Beauty. The Motley Fool recommends Ulta Beauty. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.