Those of you who read my stuff know I never try to be the first published. When Volcom did their press release I reviewed it. I listened to the conference call and read its transcript and thought about it. Then I reviewed their 10Q when it was finally released. Then I thought about it some more.
Now, I’ve thought enough. What I was thinking about as I reviewed Volcom’s material was the distinctions (and similarities) between the action sports, youth culture, and fashion markets. You see, I’m not sure just what market we are any more. Action sports, to me, is that fairly small market composed of consumers who are participants in the sports and maybe the first level of nonparticipants who are closely interested in the sports and the lifestyle. Fashion is by far the largest market. If the people in that market want a surf brand, they may be as content with Hollister as with Quiksilver. Or they may just like a plaid shirt style they saw somewhere and are happy to buy it at JC Penney. They may not even know that isn’t cool.
I see Volcom as being in the youth culture market, but holding on to its action sports roots and trying to reach up into fashion as a condition of growing. That could leave Volcom (or any other brand) stretched a bit thin in terms of market positioning.
So let’s look at Volcom’s results and discussion around those results in term of the changes that are going on in our industry and market and see if we can draw broader conclusions that go beyond Volcom.
The Balance Sheet and Issues of Strategy
Volcom’s balance sheet at September 30 remains very strong, if not quite as strong as a year ago. But it’s strong enough for them to pay a $1.00 a share cash dividend to shareholders of record at November 8th at a cost of $24.4 million. Even though it’s strong, I want to spend time on the receivable and inventory numbers, as this might get us to some of the broader industry trends I want to focus on.
Consolidated accounts receivable were up 17% to $81.8 million at September 30, 2010 compared to one year ago. Days sales outstanding were up to 91 days from 88 days a year ago. So on average it’s taking them three days longer to collect.
Inventories over the year are up 65% from $22.4 million to $37 million. By comparison, sales grew 11%. Inventory turns over the year fell from 5.8 times to 4.6 times. The number of days it took them to turn their inventory, therefore, rose from 63 to 80 days. Higher is generally better than lower when you talk about inventory turns, though too high a turn rate can indicate you’re not keeping enough inventory on hand.
With those numbers as background, let’s look at their discussion of inventory. Here’s what Volcom said about their inventory situation in their 10Q. “We believe that as of September 30, 2010, we have excess inventory levels on hand and in order to align these inventory levels with current in-season demand, we anticipate that we will experience higher inventory liquidation sales during the fourth quarter of 2010.”
They talk about this at some length in the conference call and give more detail on how it happened and what they are doing about it. First, they note that their 2010 strategy “…has been to gain floor space and market share throughout our account base. Along with increased focus on marketing and promotions, these initiatives have included incentive programs to improve retailer margins in order to insure continued strong orders for Volcom products.”
They certainly aren’t the only company with a strong balance sheet that thought a recession was a good time to take some market share, and they are probably right about that. But they chose to do it partly with programs (including some pre-book discounts and a little more markdown allowance) that reduced their gross margin in their United States segment (that includes Japan and Canada but not the Electric results in any of those countries) from 49.9% in the same quarter last year to 45.4% in the same quarter this year. Overall, their gross profit margin fell from 51.6% to 49.6% in the quarter.
Moving into next year, they expect to curtail some of these incentive programs. “We believe this will help us recover some of the lost gross margin, while maintaining our market share gain.”
Will whatever market share gain they’ve achieved be maintained when they remove the incentives? Yup, that’s the big question. Billabong was concerned enough about this issue that they chose to limit their discounts and incentives during the recession even at the cost of some sales. I’ve argued pretty strongly that your focus in a period of slower sales growth needs to be on expense control and generating gross margin dollars even at the expense of sales growth. It’s an issue for every solid brand in the industry and we’ll find out over time what the right answer is. It is, of course, possible that there are different answers for different brands.
Meanwhile, speaking of issues everybody in the industry has to deal with, Volcom indicated they are seeing upward pressure on manufacturing, freight, and raw material costs in the area of 15% to 20% FOB. That’s more than some other companies have suggested. But Volcom, and everybody else, has to ask how consumers will react in this economic environment as brands try and make up for some or all of these costs increase with higher prices. And Volcom will be dealing with that as they withdraw certain
of these incentives from their customers.
Just this morning, somebody sent me a short, article on these costs increases coming out of China. You can read it here
We are, by the way, still talking about inventory. What I like about how this article is working out is that we’re tying balance sheet to income statement to global strategy. It’s important to understand those relationships.
Why did inventory get so high? Volcom chose to carry more inventory “…to capitalize on potential in-season business.” They did this because of “…the retailers’ general reluctance to pre-book at historic levels.” They also “…made earlier and bigger buys on select styles due to longer lead times in China, and to take advantage of volume pricing.” When they did that, they had higher expectations for the second half of the year which did not materialize.
I wonder if retailer’s reluctance to pre-book should be looked at as an opportunity to sell in season or as an indication that consumers are expected to remain cautious in their spending.
Some of this inventory is going to carry over to next year and was bought with that in mind. I think that carrying over some styles in certain basic product is a good idea as long as the market will accept it. But Volcom said they “…plan to get rid of…” about $3 million in inventory in the fourth quarter and that will impact their margins.
How exactly are they going to get rid of the excess inventory? They don’t exactly say, but they do note that they expect that sales to PacSun will increase 17% in the fourth quarter. In the third quarter, PacSun bought $6.9 million. 17% would be an increase of about $1.17 million, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a chunk of $3 million in inventory they want to get rid of is going there.
That certainly creates an opportunity to discuss PacSun’s strategy and place in the market and Volcom’s relationship with them, but this article is going to be long enough and I’d better move on.
Before I get off inventory, there’s one more industry strategy issue that relates to it I want to discuss. It’s the role of the department stores. In the conference call, Nordstrom’s is mentioned as having stopped carrying action sports last year. In their previous conference call, Volcom was describing the opportunity they had at Macy’s. In this call, we’re told, “Macy’s has been more difficult for us right now in terms of our door count has been reduced over the course of, I think, this year, kind of quarter to quarter.” Quite a change for one quarter. Now Volcom is saying that “…Bloomingdales is our bright spot for our department store business.” But they’re only in eleven stores.
Those of you who read my last article on Volcom know that I visited a handful of Macy’s stores to look for Volcom and other action sports brands. What I found was that Volcom and other brands were either miserably merchandised or not present at all. It seems kind of clear that there’s some work to be done before Volcom moves much of its inventory in those channels.
Volcom’s inventory numbers, then, span a bunch of industry strategic issues that are important to all the players in our industry. These include the strength of the economic recovery, increasing product cost, delivery issues, the impact of fast fashion, changes in the retail base and its willingness to place preseason orders, and the inevitable difficulties of growing into the fashion/department store market. Nobody’s business model works the same way forever.
And that is the end of the inventory discussion. Finally.
For the quarter, revenue rose 11.4% to $104.7 million. For nine months, the increase was 13% to $244.6 million. Electric was the best performing segment, with an increase of 29% to $8.9 million. That’s 8.5% of the quarter’s total revenues.
Gross profit rose from $48.5 million to $52.8 million in the quarter, but gross profit margin fell from 51.6% to 49.6%. Selling, general and administrative expense rose by 17.6% to $33.9 million. As a percentage of revenues, they rose from 30.7% to 32.4%. Volcom states:
“The increase in absolute dollars was due primarily to increased payroll and payroll related costs of $1.5 million, incremental expenses of $1.1 million associated with our recently acquired Australian licensee, increased marketing and advertising costs of $1.0 million, and increased commissions expense of $0.6 million associated with an increase in revenues between periods. The net increase in various other expense categories was $0.9 million.”
Operating income was down 8.6% to $18 million. Net income fell slightly from $13.3 to $13 million. It would have fallen by another million if Volcom hadn’t had “other income” that was about $1 million higher than in the same quarter last year due to a foreign currency gain.
I hate calling a section “conclusion,” but I couldn’t come up with anything pithy and witty and wanted you to know the income statement part was over. What I hope you’ve gotten out of this is the importance of the inventory change and number and how it relates directly to a series of strategic issues that Volcom, and the rest of the industry, is managing. I wish I had more detail on their inventory. How they manage the issues around inventory will have a lot to do with how Volcom progresses as a company. That’s always true, but my point is that it’s particularly true in our current operating environment.
As I said at the start, Volcom is a youth culture company with its roots in action sports and reaching for fashion as a condition of continued growth. They seem to have arrived at that time in their growth and development (due partly to economic conditions) when their business model may have to evolve a bit. That’s not a criticism. Every company that starts small in this industry hopes that someday they have to deal with the issue.