Women's clothing retailer Ann Taylor
Fourth-quarter earnings came in at $0.65 per share, or $31.5 million, compared to $0.35 per share, or $16.1 million, in the same period last year. (Earnings matched guidance, which was upped in February.) Total sales grew 27.4% to $448.7 million. Same-store sales were up 15.5%, 14% higher at Ann Taylor and 20% higher at Loft.
Admittedly, the company had easy comparisons to last year's fourth quarter, when its same-store sales were down 14.6%. Last year, it blamed harsh weather and economic uncertainty, as well as its lack of gift-worthy merchandise for the holidays -- which it has since addressed, given its successful holiday season this year.
In its conference call (transcript courtesy of CCBN StreetEvents), Ann Taylor management outlined several initiatives for future growth, including the launch of the Loft.com website and an increased focus on petites, which it said will include the launch of some stand-alone petite stores.
Loft has been a real success story lately; February marks the sixth consecutive month of double-digit same-store sales increases at Loft, boasting a 20.8% rise, with the core Ann Taylor stores lagging Loft over the past year. (Loft's lower priced and more casual, while Ann Taylor has been known for its more expensive suits and "occasion" apparel.)
Though management said it will not abandon its suiting focus at the Ann Taylor stores, it may be taking a note from Loft's popularity. I'm all for it, as it's been my theory that for the most part women's workplace attire is changing, with more going for the more "business casual" approach. Along those lines, management vowed to update suits at the Ann Taylor stores, as well as offer more choices "from a relaxed business to a refined casual point of view."
Investors who believed in the strength of Ann Taylor's brand, styling, and renowned customer service and held on through tough times were rewarded, as the stock has more than doubled since this time last year. I question, though, whether the petite market will indeed prove "underserved" enough to guarantee success of planned stand-alone stores. Also, I'm cautiously optimistic that the core Ann Taylor stores will find the right mix of style and appeal to jump-start sales to consistently Lofty proportions.
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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of Ann Taylor. However, Loft is usually her first stop on any shopping excursion.