TJX Companies (NYSE:TJX) recently posted holiday-quarter earnings results that showed off the power of its flexible business model. The retailer behind the Marshall's, TJ Maxx, and HomeGoods brands saw revenue growth accelerate during the quarter, and profitability improved despite the difficult selling environment.
Following the results, CEO Ernie Herrman and his team held a conference call with analysts to give context to those trends while explaining why they see a long runway for growth ahead. Here are a few highlights from that presentation.
1. Sales growth drivers
Customer traffic was the primary driver of our [comparable store] sales increases at all of our four major divisions. We attribute this to our great brands, global mix of merchandise, and excellent values, combined with our effective marketing.
The retailer earned its growth the hard way, through increased customer traffic. The extra shopper volume powered higher comps in each of its four divisions as the overall expansion rate rose to 4% from a flat result in the prior quarter. Meanwhile, even as many rival retailers reduced their sales base, TJX got a revenue boost by adding over 250 new locations in 2017 to pass 4,000 stores.
2. Healthy profitability
Merchandise margin remained strong on top of a significant increase last year, which underscores the power of our flexible model.
-- CFO Scott Goldenberg
Gross profit margin held steady at 29% of sales despite the need for elevated promotions on some products in the HomeGoods segment. TJX's broader profitability position was healthy, as merchandise margin ticked higher, just as it has in 15 of the last 16 years. Management's plan for 2018 calls for a "significant" increase in this metric ahead.
3. Availability isn't a problem
Throughout 2017, overall availability of inventory from top vendors was as good as it has ever been. Further, we have more best brands on order than we did at this time last year.
Executives are optimistic about the quality of merchandise they'll be able to acquire in 2018 and beyond. Four decades of experience in the off-price retailing niche has demonstrated that product availability is rarely a problem. Additionally, TJX has good relationships with over 20,00 vendors and a uniquely flexible operating model that means the retailer can extract value for a wide range of products and brands.
4. More cash is on the way
We are planning a significant increase in our shareholder distributions in 2018, both through our dividend and share buyback programs.
Thanks in part to the recent tax law changes, investors can expect elevated cash returns this year. TJX just raised its quarterly dividend by 25% on top of the 20% boost it announced last year.
The company also plans to raise stock repurchase spending to between $2.5 billion and $3 billion, compared to $1.7 billion in each of the prior two fiscal years. Executives still project they'll end the year with over $2 billion in cash, which they say demonstrates the retailer's strong financial flexibility.
5. Optimistic outlook
We feel great about our momentum and solid start to the year. We remain laser focused on our major growth initiatives to drive customer traffic and comp sales and expand our store base globally in order to gain even greater market share.
The retailer's 2018 forecast calls for comps to rise by between 1% and 2%, or at about the same pace as last year. Adjusted earnings should grow by about 5% despite extra spending on wages and capital investments in the business. TJX plans to add 238 stores to its global base, which translates into a 6% boost to its selling square footage.
Some investors might find these growth targets aggressive in the current volatile retailing environment, but the goals reflect management's confidence that they'll be able to expand comp sales in 2018, just as the company has in each of the last 22 years.