While some retailers were dressed for success during the latest earnings season, with many rebounding from dismal numbers the previous quarter, there were still a few that struggled to reach a turnaround. And these trends could persist through the back-to-school season, despite the optimism expressed by most apparel retailers.
Urban Outfitters (URBN) was a clear winner last quarter as millennials loved its trendy retro style merchandise and exclusive offerings, such as its Adidas collection. But another three-brand retailer, Gap (GPS) , could not hit the mark this most recent quarter.
Urban shares shot up by about 15% on heavy trading volume after posting solid quarterly results on Aug. 17. BMO Capital Markets analyst John Morris wrote in a research note that core Urban is back on track with "millennial magic." The company's core Urban brand led with 5% comparable store-sales growth. However, comps were flat at Free People and down 3% at Anthropologie.
Urban's core brand was able to achieve such stellar comps due to on-trend merchandise and tight inventory management. But the brand's CEO, Tish Donnelly, said during an earnings call with analysts that the biggest shift in strategy has been the company's focus on "exclusive product and offering our customer product he or she can't get anywhere but Urban Outfitters."
The Anthropologie brand saw a decline in women's apparel during the second quarter, but the other six of its seven product categories generated double-digit positive comps. Company CEO Richard Hayne said the team's focus is on turning around the women's apparel business -- and there has already been improvement. Hayne added that reaction to Anthropologie's apparel assortment on a comp basis improved sequentially in the quarter, with strengths in dresses and women tops.
Furthermore, Anthropologie has two younger brands under its banner. BHLDN (pronounced "beholden"), Anthropologie's wedding collection, has the potential to top $50 million in revenue. And Terrain, an outdoor and indoor furniture retailer, continues to be a "brand highlight" alongside BHLDN. Both of these expanded categories "are fueling the increases in the direct-to-consumer business and the stellar performance of the two new larger format stores," Hayne said.
Urban's smallest apparel brand, Free People, reported a lower gross profit margin. It came into the second quarter with excess retail inventory, but that was cleared during the period by taking additional markdowns -- which Hayne noted lifted sales, but depressed margins. Still, the CEO mentioned during the conference call that Free People's has seen some "excellent" early fall selling of its newest fashion offering.
"I think that both Free People and Urban are in the sweet spot with fashion," said Hayne. "Anthro is going to get there; I'm quite confident of it. They just might take an extra couple [of] months."
In contrast, Gap's three apparel brands were not at the top of the class this quarter.
The $10.66 billion company posted rather bleak quarterly comparable sales. Core Gap comps of -3% were better than comps of -6% a year earlier, but still not positive. Banana Republic's comps worsened from a year ago, coming in at -9%. At Old Navy, comps were +3% during the second quarter, flat with the same period last year.
As for the core Gap brand, CEO Art Peck said the company has been doing "extremely aggressive work there, where Gap is following Old Navy's lead on demand-driven buying." Peck outlined his turnaround to Goldman Sachs analyst Lindsay Drucker Mann during the earnings call, saying the first thing is to get the product out, and "back into the aesthetic of the brand," along with restoring the quality and the fit.
As for Banana Republic, traffic troubles really hurt the brand this latest quarter. CFO Sabrina Simmons said that between June and July traffic dropped off significantly again for Banana, and for Gap as well, and management is "still trying to work through" why it dropped off -- perhaps not such a good sign. Another potential uncertainty for Banana is its "great" denim business. Even Peck cannot quite say what the outlook is regarding that line of business. "I'm not ready to say -- I'm always hopeful about denim and it's been in a trough for a long time," Peck said.
If there is a bright spot for Gap, it is Old Navy. As Peck put it, "it plays in the sweet spot of where the consumer is, the value sweet spot." The CEO is convinced that the company is well positioned for long-term success after returning to improved performance from the fourth quarter last fiscal year.
So while a turnaround appears to be in progress at Old Navy, it has yet to take hold for Gap's other brands. Following the latest quarterly results, TheStreet's Jim Cramer said Gap stock can find a level: "I'm not recommending it, but it can find a level."
Real Money Pro contributor Ed Ponsi sees Gap as a momentum play. The managing director of Barchetta Capital Management reviewed Gap's chart and sees "room to run" for the retailer. Ponsi notes that just last week Gap broke above resistance at $26 to reach a new four-month high.
Even though Peck says that Gap back-to-school is "really kicking in" across the country, the results remain to be seen. The company's traffic troubles among two of the apparel brands continue to persist and the move to increase marketing spending in the third quarter to try and change the inconsistency in trajectory will not solve all of the company's problems, especially considering it keeps off-trend merchandise, such as denim, in its inventory.
But Urban's turnaround is clearly taking hold as millennials embrace the brand again. With its top-line momentum along with strong inventory management, positive merchandise margin trends and on-trend styles, Urban looks to be at the top of the apparel retail class as its consumers' head back to school.