Maybe you hate money. If so, you can find some pretty enticing investment opportunities in the world of teen fashion. For instance, if you had invested in Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE:ANF), American Eagle (NYSE:AEO), or Aeropostale (NYSE:ARO) 12 months ago, you could have already lost about 15%, 40%, or 75% of your original investment -- progress.
On the other hand, maybe you actually enjoy money and think that those crushing results present a buying opportunity. Generally speaking, they don't, but not all struggling companies are created equal. Do any of these three failing brands have something worthwhile to offer?
Teens get taken out to lunch
The first thing to remember about teens is that they're not a financial powerhouse, as a group. Unemployment remains high in the 16-to-19-year-old demographic and above the average in the 20-to-24 group. Those are the prime customers for all three brands, and their lack of cash means everyone is straining for additional dollars.
Margins are taking a beating as companies try to chase one other to the bottom, where teens can actually afford their clothing. Aeropostale's gross margin was down to 17.8% in its most recent quarter, a far fall from the 39.3% that the company managed in 2010's first quarter. Abercrombie & Fitch has had the best showing at the gross level, with margins down, but only to 62.2%. Unfortunately, the brand has been unable to manage its operating costs effectively, and the company reported an operating loss in the first quarter.
Only American Eagle has been able to put up an operating profit, pulling in a 1.3% margin. That's the good news. The bad news is that in the first quarter of 2013, it managed 6.6%. Even the strongest operational business is taking a hit from weak sales and escalating expenses.
"Potential upside" is the new "solid earnings"
Not to be deterred by falling margins, weak operational mechanics, or brands that are fading into memory, Abercrombie, American Eagle, and Aeropostale are all still trading at high price-to-earnings ratios. Investors are bound and determined to find the next bounce, even if it means investing in unclear long-term plans.
Aeropostale's current plan involves shuttering 125 of its 150 P.S. branded stores while it works to make chasing trends an easier process to undertake. Abercrombie & Fitch is also chasing the trends as it tries to cut back on expenses. In a shocking twist, it seems to have the best vision for the long term, investing in its stores and online channels to try to rebuild its brand. Even so, Abercrombie's high price means investors are being asked to pony up relatively large sums for what's still a plan, not a result.
As a shocking ending to this, the answer is: No, there are no winners to be found here. None of these companies have been able to show investors how they're going to meaningfully rebuild their brands. Chasing the trends is a way to staunch the bleeding, but it's not a long-term path to success. The up-and-down nature of the teen market just makes it more apparent that there are better places for your money. In short, your best bet is to treat these companies like teens are: Don't give them your money.