Big 5 Sporting Goods. What Should We Think About Their Solid Quarter?

At its September 29 quarter end, Big 5 had 433 stores down from 436 a year ago.  Big 5 “…provide a full-line product offering in a traditional sporting goods store format that averages approximately 11,000 square feet. Our product mix includes athletic shoes, apparel and accessories, as well as a broad selection of outdoor and athletic equipment for team sports, fitness, camping, hunting, fishing, tennis, golf, winter and summer recreation and roller sports.”

Almost 55% of their revenue for the quarter came from hard goods.  27.5% was from footwear and 17.1% from apparel. 

I’ve been in maybe a half dozen of their stores, most recently within a couple of weeks.  As you can see from their product description above, they carry a very diversified product mix.  I wouldn’t say it’s well merchandised and I certainly think of them as competing on price.

As I’ve said in prior reviews of their results, that’s not a compelling source of competitive advantage in our current environment.

Revenue for the quarter was essentially constant at $266 million.  But they grew the gross margin from 31.0% in last year’s quarter to 32.3% in this year’s.  They reduced SG&A expense from 29.2% of revenue to 28.9%.  The result was operating income that rose 89% from $4.8 to $9.1 million.  Net income more than doubled from $3.1 to $6.4 million in spite of a tax bill that rose from $0.84 to $2.0 million.

The stock market of course loved that, but I want to dig a little deeper into how they did it.

While total revenues didn’t rise significantly, same store sales were up 0.3% compared to a 2.0% decline in last year’s quarter.  They note that “Sales from e-commerce in the third quarter of fiscal 2019 and 2018 were not material.”  That’s kind of a concerning statement. 

The improvement in the gross margin had three main components.  First was a 0.98% increase in merchandise margins.  “The increase primarily reflects a shift in sales mix towards higher-margin products and a decrease in promotional activities.”

Second was a reduction of 0.78%, or $2.1 million, in distribution expense.  “The decrease primarily reflected a reduced provision for costs capitalized into inventory compared with the third quarter of last year.”  Sounds like a one-time thing.

Third was a $0.6 million increase in store occupancy expense.

From the conference call: “Multiple factors contributed to the margin gains, including the benefit of a product mix shift, reflecting reduced sales of lower margin firearms and ammunition products and increased sales of higher margin opportunistic buys. Additionally, and quite significantly, our margins benefited from a favorable response to our strategic efforts to optimize our pricing and promotion.”

I wonder if those “high margin opportunistic buys” are a repeatable, intentional part of their strategy and would love to hear more about how, exactly, they are optimizing their pricing and promotion.

The $0.8 million reduction in SG&A expense resulted from three factors.  First was a $0.9 million reduction “…due mainly to lower newspaper advertising.”  Most of us are familiar with those ubiquitous Big 5 advertising inserts.  If they are reducing them, I wonder what they are replacing them with.  There’s no mention of a social media strategy.

Second, store related expenses were down $0.7 million “…due primarily to reductions in certain employee benefit-related expenses such as health and welfare expense, partially offset by increased employee labor expense.”  The increased labor costs were the result of minimum wage increases.

Finally, administrative expenses increased by $0.7 million. 

The balance sheet hasn’t changed much since last year, except that the current balance sheet reflects the new accounting standards for reporting operating leases.  Cash provided by operations improved from a negative $8.1 million in the nine months ending last September 30, 2018 to a positive $13.7 million for the nine months ended September 29, 2019.  I also want to highlight the nine months capital spending decline from $8.4 million to $6.1 million. 

So here we are with a solid quarter from Big 5 as measured by the bottom line.  I’ve been encouraging a bottom line rather than top line focus for years now.  This strong bottom line improvement, however, seems caused by one-time events and expense cuts that can’t be continually duplicated.  I am not as optimistic as the people who drove up the stock when the earnings were announced.

We still seem to have a brick and mortar retailer that’s competing based on abroad product offering and price, and its online performance isn’t significant they say.  There was no discussion of strategy in the 10Q or on the conference call- at least partly because no analysts took part in the call to ask questions.

Based on the information Big 5 is providing in its public documents, I don’t understand their strategy for success.