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Dear J.C. Penney: What Else Did You Expect?

By Nickey Friedman – Feb 10, 2014 at 8:31PM

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J.C. Penney’s nosedive may be justified.

Work with us, J.C. Penney (JCPN.Q). If you want the Street on board and backing your turnaround plan along with a show of support from common investors, you need to communicate what's going on and what you have planned in a more open and transparent manner. Your stock's crash came as little surprise after your latest update. After all, it had some holes in it so wide you could drive a truck through them.

The update
On Feb. 4, J.C. Penney released another financial update which stated that its turnaround plan is on track. Same-store sales hopped up 3.1% for November and December and 2% for the fourth quarter. This was the first quarterly same-store sales gain in two and a half years, and sales rocketed 26.2%. Hurray! But not so fast.

CEO Mike Ullman mentioned that there were "significant headwinds facing all retailers this season" and blamed this in part on bad weather. For 2014, he mentioned that the company is "encouraged" and remains "steadfast." Not a peep about how January is going. Although it's disappointing to not have that information, it's not one of the holes in the release.

Hole No. 1 -- glossing over December
I'm all about J.C. Penney returning from the dead, but a 3.1% gain for November and December ain't gonna cut it. Same-stores sales were already up 10.1% for November, which means December must have been a disaster in comparison for the average of the two months to fall down to 3.1%. I'm not sure a further drop in sales during the most important month of the entire year evidences any sort of turnaround taking place.

Hole No. 2 -- the easy comps
Last year's fourth quarter was something really awful. Same-store sales nosedived 31.7%, and even saw a 34.4% sales plunge. If the company can't even improve upon those horrible numbers, as it seems it didn't for December, it's hard to be impressed. Even sales at, while up over last year's seemingly easy-to-beat sales, were still well short of the $480 million from two years ago, still down 17%. Aren't people shopping online more often than they were two years ago?

Hole No. 3 -- the-everybody-else-is-doing-bad-too argument
As an easy counter-example, look at what may very well be J.C. Penney's most common comparison: Macy's (M 0.04%). While Macy's isn't scheduled to announce its earnings until Feb. 24, the company has already pre-announced some of its results for the holiday quarter. Macy's reported a 4.3% sales rise in the quarter and a 3.6% sales rise for November and December, and stated that the "holiday season was successful."

Hole No. 4 -- why the Jan. 8 press release?
On Jan. 8, in what might have been the world's shortest press release, J.C. Penney said it was pleased with its holiday performance. Back on Dec. 3, the same company stated, "We are all working to maintain our momentum through the Holiday season." Since it's clear that December saw more negative same-store sales, and December makes up the bulk of the holiday season, clearly there was no "maintained momentum." How come J.C. Penney characterized the holiday performance as something it was "pleased" with? Clearly J.C. Penney missed the mark.

Hole No. 5 -- the weather
Soon after I sung the praises of how cold weather actually benefits J.C. Penney, the company used the "harsh" weather as one of its excuses. On the last conference call, J.C. Penney actually credited the severe cold as the cause of the sales spike in November. Macy's, likewise, concurred that cold weather tends to bring in more traffic and sales as people come in to buy coats, sweaters, and other items. Now there's an unexplained shift in sentiment as to what the harsh cold does for sales.

Foolish final thoughts
What more is there to say at this time? The so-called turnaround seems hollow for now, and with no follow-up on how January went Fools should probably wait on the sidelines. It's always tempting to try to time a turnaround that looks "cheap" as J.C. Penney continues to sink lower and lower, but just remember that if J.C. Penney eventually goes under the loss of your investment would still be 100% no matter how "cheap" you buy in. It's a fascinating story that I will continue to monitor with each press release and conference call, and I recommend that each Fool does the same.

Nickey Friedman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. 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.

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