Once upon a time, there was a high-end fashion retailer named Saks
Nowadays, the company may be a trendsetter in style, but its stock price doesn't exactly break bold new trading trends. Its shares are still up 16% this year, but shareholders have been feeling a bit blue in recent months. Prices have returned to their typical past year's range of $15 to $20, losing more than 30% since their most recent late-summer highs. Even the company's announcement last week that it will increase by 35 million shares its repurchase program (intended primarily to facilitate the sale of its Northern Department Store Group to Bon-Ton Stores) hasn't added much sparkle to its share price.
But recently, one of Saks' marketing executives, Terron Schaeffer, had an innovative idea. He would write a children's fiction book recounting the travails of a Mongolian cashmere goat family, led by Wawa Hohhot. It seems that the Hohhot clan has reached the fashion pinnacle -- the roof of Saks' Manhattan store. Saks liked the idea, as did HarperCollins Publishers, a subsidiary of News Corp.
So how does the book, titled "Cashmere If You Can," relate to the rest of Saks' investing story? The company is obviously hoping that the book and the cross-selling opportunities it presents will ramp up sales, but it's doubtful as to whether a children's book or even a series will dig Saks out of its hole. While that spoiled rich kid, Eloise, immediately conjures up images of The Plaza, she was created by traditional means -- an independent author and illustrator team that signed a contract with a publisher -- and she wasn't originally intended as an advertisement.
So it's uncertain whether Saks will enjoy the holidays as much as the goats will. While the book represents a possible new business model, department store sales are mostly an old economy story. Revenues can increase only when the company sells more products. Although November same-store sales increased slightly, by 0.1%, by segment, the company's Saks Fifth Avenue chain decreased 2.3%. It's doubtful that Hohhot holiday merchandise sales alone will be so hot as to substantially rev up that number.
There are other issues that continue to dog Saks and get shareholders' goats. One is the fallout from accounting irregularities and corporate governance issues. Erroneous markdown allowances and ensuing investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission and Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office have necessitated four years of restated financial results, beginning with the year 2000.
Also, Saks held its annual shareholders meeting last week, where the company's wishes prevailed. Proposals requiring annual elections of all directors and that directors be elected by majority vote failed. Staggered elections were preserved, as was the rule that shareholders can either only vote for a director or withhold their vote. That provision enables the bizarre possible result that a Saks director could win election by garnering only one favorable vote.
Really, amid all the activity that seems to be unfriendly to shareholders, the most comforting holiday tale for Saks investors would be warm, fuzzy, and accurate financial reports as well as more democratic corporate governance, rather than ideas for wild and woolly picture books.
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Fool contributor S.J. Caplan advises all potential gift givers that she would much prefer receiving a cashmere scarf for the holidays (provided no goat has suffered) over a stuffed toy goat or a book about cashmere goats. Go figure.