The Buckle ended its February 3rd fiscal year with 457 retail stores and expects to end the current year with the same number. These days, that may be exactly the right decision; the days of open more stores, automatically earn more money, are gone.
So what’s the strategy? Over three years, revenues have fallen from $1.120 billion to $975 million and to $913 million in the recently completed fiscal year. Pretax income is down from $235 million in the year ended January 30, 2016 to $156 million last year and $139 million in the most recent year. Gross margin, however, rose from 40.7% last year to 41.6% in the year just ended. On the other hand, SG&A expenses rose a bit in the face of declining revenues.
Here’s how The Buckle describes its business and operations in the 10-K:
- “The Buckle, Inc….is a retailer of medium to better-priced casual apparel, footwear, and accessories for fashion-conscious young men and women.
- “The Company’s marketing and merchandising strategy is designed to create customer loyalty by offering a wide selection of key brand name and private label merchandise and providing a broad range of value-added services. The Company believes it provides a unique specialty apparel store experience with merchandise designed to appeal to the fashion-conscious 15 to 30-year old.”
- “Management believes the Company provides a unique store environment by maintaining a high level of personalized service and by offering a wide selection of fashionable, quality merchandise. The Company believes it is essential to create an enjoyable shopping environment and, in order to fulfill this mission, it employs highly motivated employees who provide personal attention to customers.”
- “Merchandising and pricing decisions are made centrally; however, the Company’s distribution system allows for variation in the mix of merchandise distributed to each store. This allows individual store inventories to be tailored to reflect differences in customer buying patterns at various locations. In addition, to ensure a continually fresh look in its stores, the Company ships new merchandise daily to most stores. The Company also has a transfer program that shifts certain merchandise to locations where it is selling best.”
- “The Company’s management information systems (“MIS”) and electronic data processing systems (“EDP”) consist of a full range of retail, financial, and merchandising systems…The system includes PC based point-of-sale (“POS”) registers in each store. The registers trickle transactions to a central server using a virtual private network for collection of comprehensive data, including complete item-level sales information and employee time clocking. The transactions are then swept into the central computer (IBM iSeries). Price updates are sent daily for the price lookup (“PLU”) file maintained within the POS registers.”
This is all good stuff. Indeed, it’s all necessary stuff. Doing it, however, is the price you pay to get a chance to compete rather than a source of competitive advantage. And I have a hard time with the use of the word “unique.” I’ve always thought The Buckle did a great job integrating their owned with purchased brands, but “unique” is pushing the envelope.
The balance sheet remains strong with no long-term debt, though equity has fallen 9.1% since last year from $531 to $391 million. Two years ago, cash flow from operations was $159 million. Last year it was $149 million and in the most current year, $120 million. It’s profitable but, as we’ve already reviewed, revenues and earnings are down over three years. I’d add that they had a 7.2% decline in comparable store sales.
Here are the questions I’d like to ask The Buckle’s management. For all I know, they may have great answers. They just didn’t want to put them in the 10-K
- What is your process for identifying and bringing in new brands? If that’s as important as I think it is, you must have one to succeed.
- Your online sales in the fourth quarter were $3.5 million, or about 12% of total revenue. But there’s no discussion of how you tie your brick and mortar and online presence together. I think that’s become increasingly important to critical. Have you made a decision to focus on a brick and mortar strategy?
- Your private label business was 36% of revenue in 2017, and you list ten private label brands you carry. I can’t tell if this is all of them. I’ve noted how well you merchandise private label and purchased brands together, but I’d sure like some more information on what limits, if any, you consider the private label business to have. You note you expect purchased brands will continue to be a majority of sales. You actually have “Dependence on Private Label Merchandise” as a risk factor and note, “The Company may increase or decrease the percentage of net sales from private label merchandise in the future. The Company’s private label products generally earn a higher margin than branded products. Thus, reductions in the private label mix would decrease the Company’s merchandise margins and, as a result, reduce net earnings.”
- The purchased brand Miss Me/Rock Revival was 18.2% of the year’s revenues. Another purchased brand, Axis Denim, was 14.0%. That’s 32.2% from two brands and seems like a troubling concentration. Are you confident those two brands will remain popular?
- You aren’t opening any new stores this year but are doing four full remodels. You note that construction costs for a remodel are about the same as for a new store. Should we expect remodels rather than new store openings to be emphasized in the future? What kind of sales bump do you get from remodels?
So there you have it. The Buckle is a profitable business with a strong balance sheet. But the three-year trends are going in the wrong direction, and the public information doesn’t describe a strategy to address the issue or respond to the new retail environment.