The market for beauty products generally isn't a high growth one. Over the past four years, the global industry has grown just 3% to 5% annually, according to cosmetics giant L'Oreal. Yet growth has remained positive over the entire past decade, even as the markets collapsed in 2009. That's because beauty products are non-cyclical, meaning that demand remains fairly constant regardless of economic conditions.
Let's take a look at two interesting stocks in that sector -- Ulta Salon, Cosmetics, and Fragrance (NASDAQ:ULTA) and Estee Lauder Companies (NYSE:EL) -- which both outperformed the broader market over the past year.
Shares of Ulta have rallied nearly 30% since the beginning of 2015, easily outperforming the S&P 500's 1% gain. Ulta is the largest beauty retailer in the United States, and provides its branded salon products and services in one-stop beauty superstores.
Last year, Ulta's comparable store sales rose 9.9% annually, up from 7.9% growth in 2013. Full-year revenue rose 20.7%, compared to 14.4% growth a year earlier. That growth continued into the first quarter of this year, when comps climbed 11.4% and revenue rose 21.6%. Ulta's bottom line growth is also strong -- net income rose 34% year over year to $66.9 million during the first quarter.
Ulta's robust growth is fueled by strong individual store performance, continuous expansion, and impressive e-commerce growth. Between the first quarters of 2013 and 2015, Ulta boosted its store count from 576 to 797 locations across the U.S. Last quarter, Ulta's e-commerce sales rose nearly 50% annually and accounted for 5% of its top line. Looking ahead, analysts expect Ulta's annual revenue and earnings to both climb about 18% for fiscal 2015.
Ulta's growth numbers look solid, but it's not a cheap stock. Its trailing P/E of 39 is higher than the average P/E -- 23 -- of specialty retailers and the S&P 500's current P/E of 21. However, investors should expect to pay a premium for companies with consistent double-digit top and bottom line growth.
Estee Lauder Companies owns a large portfolio of cosmetic brands, including Aveda, Bobbi Brown, Clinique, Donna Karan, MAC, and La Mer. It also licenses products for Michael Kors, Coach, Tory Burch, and other fashion houses. The company sells four main types of products -- skin care, makeup, fragrance, and hair care.
Last quarter, revenue at its makeup and hair care units respectively rose 7% and 4% annually, but its skin care and fragrance segments both posted 3% declines. Since 57% of Estee Lauder's sales came from markets outside of the Americas last quarter, currency fluctuations took a big bite out of its top line: Estee Lauder's total revenue rose just 1% annually last quarter, while net earnings slipped 1%.
On a constant currency basis, Estee Lauder expects sales to rise 3% to 4% in fiscal 2015, but the strong U.S. dollar is expected to reduce sales by about 5% and earnings per share by about 8%. That sounds bleak, but things could improve for Estee Lauder once the dollar stabilizes. For fiscal 2016, analysts expect sales and earnings to recover, rising 5% and 19%, respectively.
Estee Lauder certainly isn't a growth stock like Ulta, but favorable exchange rates could help it get back on track. Rising sales in China, which recently lowered its import taxes on skin care products, could also offset weaker exchange rates across Asia. Shares of Estee Lauder have climbed 16% since the beginning of the year and now trade at 29 times trailing earnings. That's a premium to the market, but it's in line with the average P/E of 28 for the personal products industry.
The bottom line
Comparing Ulta and Estee Lauder reveals an interesting contrast between beauty product stocks. Ulta is a high-growth retailer, and its dedication to the U.S. market shields it from currency fluctuations.
Meanwhile, Estee Lauder's growth will stay under pressure as long as the U.S. dollar remains strong, but it could bounce back on a weaker dollar and stronger sales in China.