One interesting observation about the current state of the economy is the divergence between blue-collar retailers like Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and Target (NYSE:TGT) versus high-end specialty retailers like Williams-Sonoma (NYSE:WSM) and Michael Kors (NYSE:KORS). The former have struggled to keep pace as same-store sales have receded, while the latter are reporting record earnings and spectacular growth. The difference highlights the varying experiences of Americans across the economic spectrum since the 2008 financial crisis. It also exposes an opportunity to profit from that continued disparity.
Luxury's rich returns
Williams-Sonoma, a specialty retailer devoted to high-quality home furnishings, has been trading around $58 since Thanksgiving -- just a few dollars short of its 52-week high. Over the past year the stock has returned about 32%, easily edging out the S&P 500. Additionally, the stock yields an impressive 2.2% and trades at a forward P/E of just 18. Interestingly, its 1.52 PEG is lower than both Target and Wal-Mart. Now that's foolish.
Third-quarter earnings for Williams-Sonoma were released last month and showed an increase of 18.4% year-over-year. The stock has
A tale of two economies
Meanwhile, luxury retailer Michael Kors has been selling its iconic handbags faster than it can produce them -- posting a blistering quarterly earnings increase of 49%. That kind of growth has propelled the stock to an enviable return of 56% over the past year. Overall, revenue increased by a whopping $1.05 billion and same-store sales increased by 8.2% at Kors this past quarter. Most retailers would kill for growth numbers like that. The company's Pottery Barn and West Elm stores are contributing the lion's share of that growth. Meanwhile, Williams-Sonoma carries very little debt on its balance sheet, and what debt it carries is decreasing rapidly. All this while the company's $750 million share buyback program is just getting under way.
Contrast that with Wal-Mart, which just reported its third straight quarterly decline in comparable store sales, or Target, whose third-quarter earnings declined 46% year-over-year. Both big-box retailers continue to lower the bar for expectations going forward, while offering dubious reasons for the slowdown.
Target has been vocal in blaming problems with its Canadian expansion for its lackluster results. Wal-Mart has cited weather, the government shutdown, and the increase in the payroll tax for declining sales. Target has lowered its full-year EPS guidance by $0.10. Wal-Mart has raised guidance by $0.17, but continues to see pressure on same-store sales through the holiday season due to heavy discounting and a shortened Christmas shopping season.
Seeing is believing
Importantly, Williams-Sonoma's e-commerce sites offer the kind of drool-worthy, picturesque experience that entices customers to stick around for a while and buy more products. Their catalogs and bricks-and-mortar store locations offer the same kind of breathtaking shopping environment that their customers love -- giving Williams-Sonoma three very powerful and profitable selling channels. Similarly, Michael Kors relies on a somewhat minimalist storefront that accentuates its colorful products and allows the designer goods to sell themselves.
Primed for additional growth
There are several reasons to believe that Williams-Sonoma will continue to outperform its peers and the market. The company raised it's earnings per share guidance recently while suggesting that comps would continue to grow by as much as 6%. Its 581 stores are strategically located in areas populated by higher-income earners.
Affordable luxury retailers such as Michael Kors and Williams-Sonoma continue to do well even while mainstream retailers lose money. Moreover, given that socioeconomic challenges rarely touch those making north of six figures, there are no indications that spending will decrease among the aspirational-minded set. In fact, retail studies show that while average Americans intend to spend about 2% less this year on Christmas, higher income earners plan to spend even more than last year. Initial reports indicated that Cyber Monday and Black Friday were both bigger successes than economists had estimated. This continues to bode well for upscale retailers.
One thing's for sure: even if you aren't part of the "one percent" you can certainly profit from their behavior, and retailers like Williams-Sonoma and Michael Kors may help you do just that.
Fool contributor Adam Bourque owns shares of Williams-Sonoma and Michael Kors. The Motley Fool recommends Williams-Sonoma. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.