Lowe's (LOW -1.39%) stock kept pace with the broader market in 2019 and with its chief rival Home Depot (HD -2.09%) even though there were wide disparities between the two home improvement retailers. For a change, Lowe's managed to boost sales at a faster pace through most of the year, but that trend reversed itself in the fiscal third quarter.
Lowe's will announce its fourth-quarter results, which include the holiday shopping season, on Wednesday, Feb. 26. Below, we'll look at a few metrics worth watching in that report.
Steady sales growth
Lowe's predicted that sales gains would hold steady at around 3% in the fourth quarter back in November. Yet that headline figure only tells part of the growth story. The chain trailed Home Depot's 3.8% increase last quarter, for example, with wins in the professional contractor niche being offset by major challenges in its online business. Sales rose by just 3% in that channel, in fact, compared to a 22% spike for its chief rival.
Look for Lowe's to update investors on its plans to revamp its online shopping segment on Wednesday. We'll also find out whether the encouraging early progress in its physical retail transformation carried through into the holiday shopping season. Success there would show up in rising customer traffic in the context of steady or improving gross profit margin.
The Canadian business has been a huge drag on overall results for more than a year, including its surprisingly weak sales in the last quarter. CEO Marvin Ellison and his team announced another round of closures in that market in late 2019 along with plans to consolidate several of its other retailing brands.
Investors are hoping that the recent estimate of $200 million of charges related to these moves won't spiral higher as Lowe's works its way through liquidating extra inventory and canceling real estate contracts. Yet there could be some further hiccups along the way toward a much lower exposure to the Canadian retailing market.
The industry outlook
Lowe's joined Home Depot last quarter in describing a strong home improvement industry in late 2019. Key metrics like economic growth, wage gains, and home price appreciation all combined to give management confidence to raise their earnings outlook. Executives promised, in fact, to post "strong topline performance while also driving margin improvement" at the close of the year.
Given the reduced guidance that Target (NYSE: TGT) and a few other retailers issued in recent weeks, it seems that the wider retail industry slowed its growth slightly at the end of the year -- at least when compared to the huge gains through the first three quarters of 2019. That deceleration might have contributed to weaker growth for Lowe's in Q4.
The stock will most likely react to management's official outlook on Wednesday. Home Depot's early forecast called for sales gains of 3.5% to 4% for 2020 while operating margin declines slightly. Lowe's might issue a similarly modest outlook on both the top and bottom lines while the company works toward getting both its physical and online selling channels up to where they need to be to better compete with its retailing peers.