Retailers Warn Cost Cuts, Shrinking Inventories are Coming Back Stores and their customers have something in common this fall: Both are watching their spending.

As retailers wrapped up their third-quarter earnings reports this week, most merchants noted that they're back in cost-control mode, and said they expect to tighten inventories after the holidays. With shoppers still spending cautiously and producer prices on the rise, merchants are aware that profit growth will have to come from squeezing more juice out of their slowly rising sales.

Even Limited Brands (LTD) plans to go easy next year, despite reporting earnings per share eight times larger than last year and announcing both a share repurchase plan and a special dividend. CFO Stuart Burgdoerfer said the parent of Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works will continue to handle inventories and expenses conservatively, even though comparable sales (for stores open at least a year) were up 10%.

U.S. consumers are still tightfisted, so after retailers expanded inventories earlier this year to make up for the recessionary cutting they did last year, the pendulum is about to swing back. Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) -- which managed a 27% increase in net income thanks to strong international sales -- and Gap (GPS) were among the many merchants that had to explain to analysts how domestic store closings and international expansions were skewing their inventory levels.

Recession's Budget Consciousness Lingers

Gap CFO Sabrina Simmons told analysts inventories were rising faster than square footage because the company had stocked up ahead of opening new stores in China. As the stores open and sales increase, inventories will be more in line with square footage, she said.

Gap managed to increase earnings 9% despite flat sales, thanks to cost controls -- a common theme among many of the retailers reporting earnings. Most chains reported that shoppers remain cautious, and said they don't expect great increases in sales during the holiday season, because shoppers will be looking for promotional items and sales.

"The recession taught them to make and keep budgets, and even after they are shopping with lists," said Cathy Tesija, executive vice president of merchandising at Target (TGT), which reported a 28.5% increase in earnings despite only a 1.6% increase in sales.

Even at the luxury end of the market, Saks (SKS) noted that its units per transaction were flat, even as its total sales rose, reflecting that wealthy shoppers weren't buying more, just paying full price more often. Saks, which has been turning around its sales this year by bringing prices down slightly, posted a 50% increase in third-quarter net income (after accounting adjustments) on a 5.7% increase in sales. The company said the profit growth came from improved profit margins brought on by the full-price sales.

"The environment has really rationalized itself," said Ron Frasch, president of Saks. "Everyone's goal is to push more goods at full price, to control inventories, to control pricing. . . . We see a very normalized marketplace."

So even as shoppers come back to the malls, the retailers expect the coming months to bring more of the same: More shoppers buying less. The "new normal" for retail in 2011 will be more of the cost controls we've seen so far, combined with modest sales increases.

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Investing in Real Estate

Learn the basics of investing in real estate.

View Course »

Behavioral Finance

Why do investors make the decisions that they do?

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:
hi cat

They do not believe in Christ but they sure DO BELIEVE in CHRISTMAS ! Let them eat cake! GUCCI GUCCI GOO!

November 21 2010 at 5:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Welcome to the Obama Christmas. You can bet he will be living large at OUR EXPENSE!!!

November 20 2010 at 1:27 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Clue's comment

The wind of ANGER blows out the light of INTELLIGENCE!

November 20 2010 at 5:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If the high end stores listed was to wait for my business they would go broke.

November 20 2010 at 1:27 AM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

I know a way to save $$$ on presents.... a Christmas gift that keeps on giving...without much of a cost at all...put a bow on your head, wrap yourself up in a festive way and give yourself physically to your special someone in a creative way....oh what a Merry Christmas Eve...and what a glow on Christmas cost: PRICELESS. Sure beats the heck out of tie, shirt, or another robe and pair of slippers...happy holidays, good health, happiness, and loving to you all.

November 20 2010 at 12:31 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to willow4321's comment
hi cat

is there room under your tree for me?? !!

November 21 2010 at 5:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

End the greedy retailers they pay good wages or get trashed like 1967!

November 19 2010 at 11:56 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Toss the CEOs into the street like garbage so the people can give them a piece of their minds

November 19 2010 at 11:55 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

Close the retailers that pay scant wages and hours their soaking the taxpayers with assistance for their slave workers. Bulldoze the crooked retailers and plow them under

November 19 2010 at 11:52 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Iselin007's comment

Oh, could you provide us a list??? :o)

November 20 2010 at 1:30 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I say give them a taste of reality let them go out of business all they do is pass their low wage people off on the tax payers while they reap the profits

November 19 2010 at 11:49 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Yo Media you just keep slamming people and keep consumer confidence DOWN negative NEWS!!!! You guys are so great for this nations moral and confidence!!! Why cant you just say There are great deals out there for consumers this year!!! for those who need to ease up on spending!!!!! you can still get great gifts hows that!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

November 19 2010 at 11:37 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

We cut our Christmas budget from $1,000 to $300. Not because we had to, but because we just spent to much money. Now we bu just for the grandkids and that is really what Christmas is about. Even there we cut back on the kids. They have too much and don't appreciate what they have.

November 19 2010 at 11:13 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to jacobsgold's comment