Not Even Amazon or the Olsen Twins Can Save Kohl's
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Kohl’s Corp.’s holiday season sales miss suggests even the most promising turnaround strategies won’t be enough to save department stores.
Shares of Kohl’s fell as much as 9.4% in early trading on Thursday after the company said same-store sales in the all-important November and December period declined. Kohl’s blamed the 0.2% sales drop on softness in women’s apparel, which CEO Michelle Gass said the company is “working with speed to address.” She promised to share additional details on key growth initiatives at an investor day scheduled for March. Credit to Kohl’s for realizing it needs to do more, but there’s still a sense of deja vu here.
Kohl’s went into the holiday season promising it would see the benefits of both a “record level of newness” in its product selection and an effort to drive more traffic in its stores by accepting returns for Amazon.com Inc. My colleague Sarah Halzack warned in October that the holiday rush would be a key test of how much traction these initiatives were actually getting and that the lack of a payoff would lead to many unhappy investors and serious doubts about how feasible a comeback for Kohl’s really is.
In some ways, you could argue those strategies did give Kohl’s a leg up over its peers. Macy’s Inc.’s said earlier this week that comparable sales at owned and licensed stores in November and December dropped 0.6% despite its own turnaround initiatives, while J.C. Penney Co. on Thursday reported a 5.3% percent plunge in the nine-week period ended Jan. 4, after adjusting for its exit from major appliances and in-store furniture. But if, after throwing everything it had at a better holiday season, all Kohl’s has to show for itself is a relatively less-bad decline, that doesn’t bode well.
The softness in women’s retail is particularly troubling. Among the new offerings Kohl’s rolled out for the holiday season was an exclusive women’s line from designer Jason Wu and a partnership with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen for their Elizabeth and James-branded apparel, handbags and accessories. It’s not clear if customers just weren’t interested, or were turned off by poor, cluttered store displays, or Kohl’s just couldn’t get them in the door to take a look, even with the Amazon program. Cowen analyst Oliver Chen cut his rating on Kohl’s to “market perform” ahead of the holiday sales release on concerns about its performance in women’s apparel, among other things. He warned that customer recognition and uptake of Kohl’s initiatives may take time. But time is the commodity Kohl’s has the least of, with companies such as Target Corp. and TJX Cos. taking away market share that will be difficult to win back.
While Gass cited “momentum” in categories like activewear and beauty and “solid performance” in footwear and men’s, it’s no longer clear what counts as momentum and solid for Kohl’s after such a long string of disappointments. The company also warned on Thursday that 2019 earnings would come in at the low end of its guidance, suggesting that the sales it did get came via increased promotions.
Kohl’s went into the holiday season as the best-positioned to succeed among a group of struggling department stores. It exits it as just one of the pack.
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Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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