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Results spur questions about its turnaround efforts, consumer spending
By Sarah Nassauer
This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (January 16, 2020).
Holiday sales were sluggish at Target Corp., raising questions about the health of the U.S. consumer and whether the retailer's turnaround is losing steam.
Target's November-December sales rose 1.4% for stores and digital channels operating for at least 12 months, the company said Wednesday. It warned that growth for its full fiscal fourth quarter, which includes January, would likely fall short of the 3% to 4% gain it previously predicted.
"We faced challenges throughout November and December in key seasonal merchandise categories and our holiday sales did not meet our expectations," said Chief Executive Brian Cornell, who after taking the helm in 2017 launched a plan that included store remodeling and investment in Target's digital platform.
The Minneapolis-based chain cited weak sales of toys and electronics, two big sellers during the gift-giving season. It also said Wednesday it was appointing a new executive to oversee its roughly 1,800 stores.
A government report on December retail sales due out Thursday will provide a better picture of whether Target's shortfall reflects missteps at the retailer or is evidence of a broader pullback by U.S. consumers. Investors are also waiting to hear from Walmart Inc., the country's biggest retailer, which is slated to report quarterly results next month.
Market researcher NPD Group this week said holiday results were lackluster, estimating that total sales rose 0.2% from a year earlier. The National Retail Federation is also expected to update its estimate on Thursday; the group had predicted more than 3% growth in holiday sales in stores and online.
Target's shares nearly doubled last year and closed near an all-time high on Tuesday. They fell 6.6% to $117 on Wednesday.
While other traditional retailers have struggled, Target has been held up as a chain that has adapted to shifting consumer habits by ramping up its e-commerce operations and remodeling its stores.
Digital sales in November and December rose 19% from a year earlier, following 31% growth in the prior quarter. To drive online sales, the company has been rolling out a variety of home-delivery and store-pickup services and during the holidays offered free shipping on all orders placed on its website.
Some analysts said the year-end results at Target didn't necessarily signal weakness in its strategy. They pointed to a holiday season that had six fewer days between Thanksgiving and Christmas compared with the prior year, which compressed the time for stores to deliver packages to homes and shoppers to make impulse purchases. There were also fewer new electronics devices on the market to entice gift buyers, analysts said.
"Some of the shortfall can be explained away," Chuck Grom, of Gordon Haskett, wrote in a note.
Sales at Target have been robust in the past couple of years aided by its turnaround plan, which included adding more in-house brands, remodeling stores and cutting prices, as well as investing in its digital business. Mr. Cornell announced the turnaround plan in 2017 following a weak holiday performance.
The company has boasted a streak of eight consecutive quarters of at least 3% growth in comparable sales, including a 4.5% jump for the period ended Nov. 3. In November, Mr. Cornell said the company was gaining market share in the apparel, home and beauty categories. "We are starting to see the bifurcation of winners and losers" in retail, he told analysts a week before Black Friday.
Target said Wednesday that many categories continued to do well but their growth wasn't enough to offset flat toys sales and a 6% drop in electronics sales, as well as weakness in some home categories.
The company maintained its profit targets, in part because the categories with stronger sales earn high margins. For its fiscal fourth quarter, Target expects adjusted earnings per share of $1.54 to $1.74 and full-year adjusted earnings of $6.25 to $6.45 a share.
Some analysts say they weren't expecting toy sales to match the growth of the prior holiday season, when the closing of Toys 'R' Us stores sent shoppers elsewhere.
Target's "holiday sales were not terrible," said Morgan Stanley retail analyst Simeon Gutman, who was expecting flat toy sales and notes that holiday sales appear to be weak based on reports so far. "Target's ability to manage the business well through weaker sales is the silver lining."
Several other retailers have reported sluggish holiday sales, but most were department stores and specialty chains that entered the holiday season on weak footing. Macy's Inc., J.C. Penney Co., Kohl's Corp. and Victoria's Secret parent L Brands Inc. all reported lower sales for November and December.
Costco Wholesale Corp. was a bright spot, reporting comparable-sales growth of 9% for the five weeks ended Jan. 5, including e-commerce and international sales.
Along with Walmart, Amazon.com Inc., has yet to detail holiday sales results. The day after Christmas, Amazon said simply that it set a record for orders in the season and noted strong demand for toys, fashion and electronics.
Overall, the strong U.S. economy, low unemployment and rising wages boosted retail sales last year, government data show. But much of the growth is coming from e-commerce, not store visits. For Nov. 1 through Christmas Eve, online sales rose nearly 19% compared with growth of 1.2% for in-store sales, according to Mastercard SpendingPulse.
The holiday-sales reports so far leave a muddled picture of the health of the economy, but there aren't specific signs that consumer spending is weakening, said Rod Sides, vice chairman of retail at Deloitte LLP. "Once we get the other data points in a week or so, we will know," he said.
Target said its chief stores officer, Janna Potts, 52 years old, will retire and be succeeded immediately by another company veteran, Mark Schindele, 50.
Ms. Potts, a 30-year Target employee, took over as stores chief in early 2016. She will stay in an advisory role until May 1.
Mr. Schindele, who has worked at the company for nearly 20 years, was most recently responsible for remodeling stores and rolling out smaller-format stores in urban areas.
The company also promoted two executives to permanently fill the role vacated in early November when Mark Tritton resigned as chief merchant to take over as CEO of Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. Christina Hennington and Jill Sando will serve as chief merchandising officers.
Write to Sarah Nassauer at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 16, 2020 02:47 ET (07:47 GMT)
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