Considering the nation's two largest bookstores are set to report earnings within several hours of each other next week, it will be particularly easy to pick apart the numbers and make a few quick comparisons. Industry leader Barnes & Noble
Borders has been struggling to keep its same-store sales above water, and though comps did tick fractionally higher in the fourth quarter, they appear to be sinking lower again. Last month, with only a week left in the first quarter, the company announced that same-store sales at its superstores were tracking 0.8% lower and would likely fall short of prior guidance that forecasted a gain in the low single digits. With sales remaining sluggish, management was forced to revise its earnings outlook from a modest profit to a $0.06 to $0.07 first-quarter loss.
Meanwhile, same-store sales at Barnes & Noble have been slowly climbing, closing out last year with a solid 3.1% gain. In contrast to Borders' weaker forecast, Barnes & Noble has left its projections intact, with first-quarter earnings still expected to come in at $0.11 to $0.13. The company is anticipating that first-quarter comps will increase in the low single digits, with a full-year improvement matching that of last year's.
While Borders seems to be losing ground in this battle, there are reasons to be optimistic. Neither of the firms' mall-based concepts is showing any signs of life, but Borders seems to be committed to turning around its struggling Waldenbooks chain and has been converting many of the outlets to Borders Express stores -- around 40 last year, with another 100 on tap for this year. The renovated locations include redesigned interiors and an expanded selection of merchandise. Last quarter, comps at Waldenbooks fell 1.6%, half of the 3.2% decline that Barnes & Noble's B. Dalton reported.
At this point, B. Dalton is little more than a footnote in Barnes & Noble's results, with the 150-store chain representing just 4% of last quarter's revenues, versus more than 700 Waldenbooks locations that constitute nearly one-fourth of Borders' sales.
Aside from reviving Waldenbooks, Borders also has high hopes for its international operations. Last quarter, net income in the segment spiked nearly 50% on overseas sales that jumped 28% to $185 million. Finally, taking a page out of Hastings'
I would keep an eye on both international and complementary product sales on Tuesday, as each represents a new area of growth outside of the slow-moving, low-margin, domestic book market. They should help keep the top line moving, at least until Scholastic's
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Fool contributor Nathan Slaughter is anxiously awaiting Hogwarts to be back in session. He owns none of the companies mentioned.