The Impact of Demographics on the Active Outdoor Industry

I’ve just finished reading a book called The Methuselah Effect, by Patrick Cox.  As I’ve said, I often get intriguing business ideas from non-business books.  This is one of those times.  I really recommend this book.  The trouble is, it doesn’t seem to be on Amazon, which I’ve never seen before.

Anyway, the book is about advances in biotechnology and how they are going to impact health and longevity.  The first chapter title is, “Fewer Births, Longer Lives: Society’s Aging Changes Everything.”

His premise, which I found convincing, is that people are going to live longer and be more active.  But there are going to be fewer people.  He goes on to says in the first page, “From here on out, every generation will be smaller than the one before it.  After 200,000 years of population growth, mankind’s numbers are shrinking.”

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The Sports Authority Bankruptcy: Symptom of a Perfect Storm and How You Can Benefit

TSA’s filing for bankruptcy on March 2nd wasn’t a surprise. It had missed a $20 million bond interest payment in mid-January. It reached an agreement with the bond holder to file and try to sell assets to pay down debt. We’ll see how that works out and if they can avoid liquidation.

A couple of people asked me when I was going to write about it, so I sat down and started working through some of the bankruptcy court documents. Here’s the link to the court documents should you be inclined to plod through any them yourself.

But then I noticed that some other people had undertaken the task of plodding through them.  Between all those articles and court filings, your need for details of the filing should be well and truly sated.

Now let’s get to what I’m calling the strategic background. In an operational sense, you probably only care about TSA’s bankruptcy if you’re an unsecured creditor. Like most unsecured creditors in most bankruptcies, you shouldn’t expect to see a lot of your money.

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Retail and Brand Strategy: Cycles or Long Term Trends?

Could this time really be different?

Recently, a couple of retail CEOs have been pointing out, or maybe bemoaning, the lack of a strong retail trend. They’ve noted how in the past they’ve been able to rely on such trends for big sales boosts and have explained their worse than expected performance partly by the lack of it.

They say, “But that will change.” I’m sure they are right. It will change.   Their implication, however, is that this is a traditional retail cycle of relatively short term duration. I’m not so sure about the “short term” part.

It’s a bit awkward for me to be asking, “Could it be different this time?” because I’m very aware of the cycles of history over decades and centuries. I know that in retail cycles, not to mention social, economic, and financial cycles, it has mostly turned out to not be different.

I’m going to compromise with myself and say it’s probably not different, but the time frame during which that becomes clear is going to be longer than we’re used to. The factors that are coming together guarantee a long, strange trip as the tidal wave of divergences works through our retail market. I’m going to look at what those are and try to reach some conclusions about succeeding in our industry.

Let’s start with overall economic conditions and debt then move on to customer behavior and how we sell to them. Next, I want to take a look at technology and what that means to the competitive environment. Based on that, I’ve got some ideas about how retailers and brands have to operate.

It IS the Economy, Stupid

I don’t think I need to spend much time trying to convince you that this economic recovery has been weaker than any since the 2nd World War. You are certainly aware that wage growth has been low to nonexistent and that job growth, especially for our primary customer group, has tended to be in lower paying jobs and often involve multiple jobs. Let’s call that group the millennials, though you’ll see below I think that’s an over simplification. When can we expect improvement?

Not for a while, and the reason is debt. I’ve recommended a book called This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly by Reinhart and Rogoff. It’s so well researched that it’s hard to dispute their findings, but they are hardly the only ones acknowledging the problem debt is causing. Basically, they show that debt over a certain point leads to lower growth in an economy.

They suggest that growth starts to be impacted when total private and public debt as a percentage of GDP reaches around 90%. As of the start of 2015, by way of some examples, Canada is the cleanest dirty shirt at a bit less than 300%. The U.S. is about 375%, the Eurozone about 475%, the U.K. 500% and Japan, the hands down winner, is north of 650%. What probably won’t surprise, but should disturb you, is that total debt has continued to rise since the Great Recession.

I’ve always found the idea of fixing a debt problem with more debt perplexing.

Meanwhile, take a look at this chart showing real GDP growth in selected periods in the U.S. 2000 is the year the stock market bubble first burst. To my way of thinking, though the Fed stepped in and “saved” us, that’s when things started to go south in a noticeable way.

GDP chart for Retail and Brand Strategy article for TWB 1-16

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I borrowed” this chart and the data in the previous paragraph from Hoisington Investment Management’s review and outlook for the third quarter of 2015. You can get your own copy at http://www.hoisingtonmgt.com/hoisington_economic_overview.html. I highly recommend it.

I’ve studied enough statistics to understand that correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but I’m convinced that there’s a relationship between GDP growth and debt. It is kind of logical. If you owe money, then you have less to spend while you pay it back and pay the interest. If you choose not to pay it back, then the people you owe it to have less to spend.

I think we’re in a low growth period until we do something about our overall level of debt. Solving the problems will be unpleasant and, if avoided long enough, draconian. Please, please, please, email me and tell me why I’m wrong.

So the first thing we have to deal with is continued slow economic growth caused by over indebtedness. Let’s move on. I don’t have room for a good rant on the damage the Federal Reserve is doing with continued low interest rates.

Our Customers

Our customers are, uh, wait a minute. Who are they anyway? Seems like we, as an industry, are trying to sell to everybody from six year olds to baby boomers. A couple of individual brands seem to succeed with that, but mostly you can’t. I’ll spare you my oft repeated speech about the dangers of expanded distribution except to remind you that 1) growth requirements make it hard to be a successful public company in this space because of the requirement for regular, quarterly growth and once you get into broader distribution 2) they may know your brand but not your story and your competitive advantage goes away and 3) we’re way over retailed with too much indistinguishable product.

I also wondered a while ago if maybe distribution didn’t matter due to online and because good merchandising could overcome wider distribution. To summarize, I thought that once a product was ubiquitous in the online world and a click away, customer’s reaction to broader distribution might change. I’ve decided the answer is “no.” It turns out that getting retailers who’ve never been great at merchandising specialty product to do it well is expensive, challenging and time consuming. There’s also our continuing problem of a lack of product differentiation which poor merchandising just highlights.

Meanwhile, back to our customers. If we have to characterize them as a demographic, we’d say, “the millennials.” This is the group (much like my mom’s generation who’s formative years were in the Great Depression) that got slammed by the Great Recession. They are financially conservative (and will be for life), are having a hard time making a wage that allows them to live independently, are not particularly brand loyal (though if you can get them, you can keep them), are most influenced by their community (not your advertising), and are more interested in experiences. A product is something they seek in order to have an experience, rather than buy for the hell of it. They have the data to find exactly the right product with exactly the right attributes because they don’t want to screw up the experience. Don’t try and bullshit them.

Okay, now that I’ve defined our customers as a demographic, I have to tell you not to do that. In the days of instant, endless, information about anything, groups, trends, styles, points of view can come and go pretty damned quickly. And anybody who’s interested in them can find out about them and be part of the community they represent. It’s easier to say your customer is of a certain age, and it may be true. But it’s not an adequate description of who they are.

Notice how the term “fast fashion” seems to have disappeared? It’s like it’s no longer an aberration, but a permanent condition. This seems to require that companies be a bit reactive after all those years where being proactive was a virtue.

To go with a soft economy, then, we’ve got customers that are harder to get and keep and in general have less money to spend. I am just a font of good news today.

Technology

 Let me remind you of two things I hear brands and retailers saying all the time.

“Get the right product to the right place at the right time,” and “Give the customer what they want, when they want it, where they want it.”

Those two catchy phrases make a lot of sense and are indicative of two things. First, they tell us how much the customer is in charge. In the days of too much retail space, too many undifferentiated products and near perfect information, that’s probably inevitable. Second, we’re all trying to figure out how, exactly, to do this and the one thing we’ve learned for sure is that it’s really expensive. There’s an advantage here to big players with strong balance sheets, because the cost for a 50 store retail chain to do it is probably not that much different than for a 600 store chain. Let’s put it this way- the cost per store is lower for the larger retailer or brand.

When you accomplish it, you won’t have created a long term competitive advantage; you will have just bought yourself the right to compete. I’m not talking about using a POS system here. I’m saying that from design at the brand to returns at the retailer the systems have to be integrated to keep up with the speed and requirements of your customers.

My Hero

Maybe you remember that a couple of years ago Rip Curl got itself in trouble. They tried to sell the company, but couldn’t get the price they wanted. So they decided to solve the problem the hard way.

They refocused on just being the best surf company they could be. They cut their product offerings by 50% and focused on the ones that their customers needed. They try to offer technology and quality that differentiate the products they do sell. They emphasized efficiency and reduced their distribution. They only sold places where they could make money. What a good idea.

In summary, their primary focus was on improving net income (and reducing working capital invested) rather than gross revenues.

It seems to be working, and regular readers will know I thoroughly approve of what they decided to do. Bluntly, I don’t think they had a choice. And neither do many of you.

The economy is making fast revenue growth difficult. Your customers (who can’t be simply identified as an age group any more) won’t buy what you tell them to buy, but what their community supports. They have endless choices and information. And the continuous investment required to satisfy their product and shopping requirements has gone through the roof- especially for smaller brands and retailers.

Do some surprising things. Perhaps completely outside of what your customers expect. Even contrary to your brand image. If you accept my premise that it’s tougher to get and keep brand loyalty in the days of endless, instant new brands, and that’s it’s damned near impossible to keep up with what’s “cool” anyway, why not surprise your customers this way? It’s a way to claw back a little initiative and not have to be reactive all the time in an impossible attempt to keep up with the rate of change.

Especially as a newer brand, focus on your web site and selling there. You can’t find the customers- they have to find you. Social media, etc. This minimizes marketing costs. What you do spend should be aligned with creating experiences. If you’re not going to grow revenue as fast as you once might have, make sure you’re selling at a price that gives you a solid gross profit. In your brick and mortar retail, be very cautious about whom you open and curate the hell out of them until you know they have you figured out. Do some temporary stores in surprising places for strange reasons. Never over supply.

It’s really a pretty interesting time to be building a brand as long as you acknowledge what I think are longer term conditions under which you have to operate. Rip Curl can watch some of its competitors flail as it just focuses on the bottom line with a business model that’s responsive to existing business conditions using some of the concepts I’ve briefly described above.

You can do the same thing.

Altamont Acquisition of Hybrid; the Plot Thickens

When Altamont bought Fox Head in early December, I wrote this article, reporting what little we knew about the deal and speculating on what Altamont was up to strategically, if anything. Here’s, in part, what I said.

“Altamont now owns or at least has investments in Brixton, Dakine, Fox Head, HUF and Mervin Manufacturing. That is quite a gaggle of action sports/outdoor/street wear/fashion businesses. Are these just opportunistic buys or is there a plan here? That is, will each continue to run independently, or is there enough overlap in markets and manufacturing to justify some coordination? Maybe Altamont is looking to build the next VF. I hasten to add that’s complete speculation on my part. Still, it does feel like there’s been a recent focus on this market by Altamont.”

Now, Altamont has gotten itself a Christmas present, investing in “Hybrid Apparel (Hybrid), a leading supplier of branded, licensed and private label apparel.” On its web site, Hybrid describes itself as”… a complete and vertical operation; designing, merchandising, developing, sourcing, producing and distributing branded, licensed, generic and private label apparel to all tiers of distribution.”

The Altamont press release continues: “Hybrid’s partnership with Altamont will allow Fox, the number one global motocross apparel brand and a recent Altamont and Hybrid investment, to benefit from Hybrid’s product development and supply chain expertise as well.”

Hybrid, then, invested in Fox Head along with Altamont.

Feel now, with the investment in Hybrid, that Altamont has a plan. In the last couple of years, we’ve watched pretty much every large brand or retailer improving manufacturing and logistics. They want to minimize SKUs, control inventory, and reduce time to market. There’s too much money on the table to not do that well and it’s an important attribute of brand building.

Altamont now has a partner that specializes in exactly those areas. I can’t for the life of me imagine that Altamont won’t ask Hybrid to take a look at Brixton, Dakine, HUF and Mervin. I’ll take a shot in the dark and guess that all those brands make t-shirts. Can you think of a reason Altamont wouldn’t “encourage” consolidation and coordination of those orders through Hybrid? I’m thinking you could take some significant cost out of each of those brands, not to mention get better pricing by increasing volume.

I suggested in the quote from my earlier article above that Altamont is thinking about building the next VF. If you follow VF at all, you know one of the things they do is bring a rigorous manufacturing and logistics process to their acquisitions.

Maybe Altamont started out making opportunistic buys, but it now looks like they are creating a package of related and coordinateable brands all of which have some growth potential that can improve their financial performance even before Altamont, through Hybrid, takes some significant costs out.

Okay, now let’s take the next step in speculation. Again, I’ll remind you that I have no actual information.

With some revenue growth and cost control over the next year or two, (and other acquisitions?) what an interesting group to take public as an exit strategy. The tag line would be something like, “Just like VF, only our brands are cooler!”

Just an idea. Go back to enjoying the holidays.

What Does the Data on Our Target Market Say About Your Business Strategy?

It was a lot of years ago when I first started reminding you not to focus just on your gross margin percentage, but your gross margin dollars as well. Then, in 2009, with the recession in full swing, I got all excited about Gross Margin Return on Inventory Investment (GMRII) after Cary Allington at Action Watch pointed me to the concept.

I discussed it in some presentations and wrote about it. Here’s one of my articles on the subject. It’s held up pretty well.
I liked the GMRII concept because my reading of history is that debt caused recessions (if recession is an adequate word to explain what we’re going through) last a long time. This one, I concluded, was not going to be different from all the others. It seems, unfortunately, that so far I’m right about that.

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A Sustainable Competitive Advantage: The Zumiez 100K

I have written before about the value of Zumiez’s hiring, training, and promotion process. They take kids with a passion for the activities and brands their stores sell, train them, support them, make them compete with their peers, and promote the ones who succeed. The average age of store managers is something like 23 and pretty much all their district and regional managers started out as sales people in a store. 

This approach to culture and staffing is so important to them that it’s been allowed to impede their growth plans when they couldn’t identify enough good people to staff new stores. In hindsight, I imagine they are thrilled that happened given the way the environment for brick and mortar is evolving.
 
Anyway, it’s easy to read SEC filings and intellectualize about this, but when you walk into the annual 100K party at Keystone, where the company’s best sales people are celebrated, you look up and see a sustainable competitive advantage staring you right in the face. That’s never happened to me.  The fact that I was afraid I was the oldest person in a room of 1,300 only dampened my enthusiasm a bit.
 
A competitive advantage is only sustainable if none of your competitors can duplicate it. I suppose somebody else could do what Zumiez does, but they’d better get started. They’re 30 plus years behind.
 
I’m guessing most of the Zumiez sales people don’t read my column. If they wrote one I’d sure as hell read it to find out what brands were succeeding. If they did read it, I’d tell them how lucky they are to have jobs involved with something they love (hell, maybe just to have jobs), solid support and training, the opportunity to advance based on performance and, if they want it, a career.
 
And finally, I’d tell them what a great thing it is to be part of something that can support and validate them. Without getting too deep into generational history (read this book if you are curious what I’m talking about), let’s just say that this is a group of young people who are going to have to pull together to solve some big problems not of their making. I’m seeing it with my own kids (they don’t work at Zumiez) as they form groups and relationships outside of the immediate family that involve strong personal bonds. I see it where I went to college, where the number of students who return for reunions are much larger than they ever were in my generation.
 
So the environment Zumiez has created not only works for these young people, but for Zumiez as well and is consistent with the way generations turn over and repeat themselves in our society over decades. And it has significant implications for how any brand markets itself today.
 
But, as usual, I digress. Back at the 100K, the introduction of brand founders was particularly interesting. In groups (there’s a lot of them), they march founders out on stage and give each one a chance to say a few words. Somebody told me they’d meant to bring a decibel meter to measure the applause each brand got (or didn’t get). That would have been brilliant. I would love to publish that list with the noise levels listed.
 
Among the brands that got the loudest cheers were brands that are urban, or youth culture, or whatever word you want to use. But they were definitely not action sports brands. Not to say that some action sports brands weren’t well received, but I thought the reception of the various brands was a good indication of how the industry is evolving.

It is true that a deeply imbedded, successful culture can be destructive to a company if the culture resists evolving with the competitive and economic environment. I can’t say for certain that Zumiez (or any other company) won’t someday have that problem.  But Zumiez can minimize that potential by just letting the young sales force that is part of its target demographic drive brand selection and be the arbiter of what’s “cool.”  If they do that I think this competitive advantage can continue to be sustainable.  That’s a hell of thing and unusual in our industry.

 

 

Why Crocs Might Go Private

I’ve been holding on to this article on Crocs for a while mostly because I just didn’t have time to do anything with it.  What it says is that Crocs is looking to go private because it’s just not as cool as it was.  Currently, it’s traded under the symbol CROX on the NASDAQ and is at $12.88 as I write this.  Here’s a five year stock chart on the stock’s movement.


You’ll note that the stock is trending down at a time when the market has been trending up. 

In the 9 months ended last September 30th, Crocs earned $77.4 million on revenue of $964 million.  That doesn’t sound so bad.  Okay, but in the same 9 months in 2012, it earned $135 million on revenue of $898 million. Selling more and making less.  If that isn’t a sign of being less cool, I don’t know what is. 

So what have we got here?  The gross margin for the nine months fell from 55.8% to 53.9% and selling, general and administrative expenses rose 18.3% from $350 to $414 million.  Operating income fell from $151 to $106 million.  I’m going to resist the urge to do a complete financial analysis (I hear those sighs of relief).   

My point is simple.  It seems a lot of people still want to buy Crocs, and the company can make money.  What they can’t do is satisfy Wall Street’s endless demands for the growth that makes stock prices rise.  And I’ll bet anything that if they try to do that, their gross margin will continue down and the brand will lose credibility as it tries to push its distribution harder, faster, further.  Remember it would be trying to do that in a poor economy with a lot of competition. 

Is this starting to sound at all like any other companies we follow? 

Some smart person probably said, “Hey, if we weren’t public, we could pull back our distribution, improve our brand positioning and gross margin, cut some expenses (from not being a public company and because our improved distribution would let us reduce some marketing expenses) and maybe make more money with less working capital invested!”  Perhaps they’d consider closing some of their 600 or so stores as well. 

Maybe that would work or maybe, for this brand, it wouldn’t.  But continuing to try and satisfy the requirements of the public market looks like a bad plan.  I haven’t heard that there’s a deal done yet.  I’ll let you know if I hear and you do the same for me.

K-Swiss Acquisition of OTZ Shoes: There’s More Here than Meets the Eye

When I first read about this deal, I thought “Good for the team at OTZ. I hope K-Swiss does well by them” and kind of let it go. Then at a reader’s urging, and through a few clicks on the internet, I decided there might be something to write about here. I don’t have any information that isn’t public. 

First, I went and looked at K-Swiss. It felt like a confused brand. It’s certainly not action sports. It’s part casual footwear and part athletic footwear. It’s not youth culture as I think about it. It kind of seems like casual sneakers in search of a market position (Well, there’s another company I’ll never consult for).
 
Apparently, I’m not completely out of line to suggest that it had some issues. Its stock reached an all-time high in the middle of November 2006 at a bit above $37.00 a share. In January 2013, right before its acquisition by E.Land was announced (I’ll get to that) K-Swiss stock was trading at $3.13 a share.
 
Its last 10K filing for the year ended December 31, 2012 showed sales that had dropped over the year by 17% from $268 million to $223 million. It lost $35 million dollars and had lost money in the three prior years as well. It last turned a profit in 2008, when it earned $21 million on sales of $327 million. Guess it’s at least partly a victim of the economy.
 
OTZ Shoes, according to its web site, was conceptualized in 2005 and came into being in 2009. The idea was based on “… the oldest shoes ever found. These belonged to Oetzi, the iceman, and dated back to 3300B.C. The shoes were quite remarkable considering the time period – made of deer skin stitched to a bear skin sole with an internal woven net filled with dried grass and moss for warmth and comfort.”
 
OTZ CEO Bob Rief should expect a call from me, because I really, really want to know if they ever tried to duplicate those shoes out of the original materials just to see how functional they actually were. Don’t suppose you could sell them, but it would have some PR value.
 
If forced to characterize the OTZ brand, I’d call it outdoor with a cool factor. It’s not action sports in the traditional sense, but that’s fine. The connection to Oetzi and the oldest shoe in the world lends the brand a distinctiveness. I hope they cherish and manage that well because it might be a long term point of differentiation. I’d suggest more pictures and info on Oetzi and his shoes on the web site. I’m surprised there aren’t any. Maybe copyright or trademark issues?
 
What initially troubled me was that this deal felt a bit like Kering (formerly PPR) buying Volcom and Deckers buying Sanuk. In both those cases, a larger company that was kind of circling the youth culture/action sports space wanted credibility and an entrée to those consumers. In both cases, so far, the deals haven’t worked out the way the acquirers envisioned, especially given the prices they paid.
 
Under the acquisition agreement, “…OTZ Shoes will continue to operate as an independent subsidiary of K-Swiss Inc., with key executives remaining in place.” Let’s hope that deals holds up. I’d be very curious as to what the actual language in the contract says.
 
Then I thought to myself, “K-Swiss’ problems look like they go way beyond anything OTZ can resolve no matter how successful it is,” followed by “Why has OTZ allowed itself to be bought by a company that’s going south at a disturbing rate?”
 
Turns out, there was a simple answer. On April 30, 2013 E-Land, a Korean conglomerate, concluded the acquisition of K-Swiss that was announced in January. Here’s the press release. It says, in part, “Established in 1980 in Korea, E.Land has grown to become one of the largest South Korean conglomerates, primarily specializing in fashion and retail/distribution. E.Land is Korea’s first and largest integrated fashion and retail company, with operations spanning nine different countries across three continents, including Korea, China, India, the United States and Italy. Comprised of over 60 affiliated entities, the Company offers close to 200 brands and operates more than 10,000 stores worldwide, recording approximately US$7.1 billion of revenues in 2011. E.Land’s newer businesses also include restaurants, construction and leisure.”
 
That’s a lot of brands and a lot of stores. Clearly OTZ and K-Swiss will have the resources they need. I have to imagine that E.Land management hopes the team at OTZ can be of assistance to K-Swiss, though for all I know K-Swiss can grow by leaps and bounds just by being in E.Land’s distribution channels. Then again, I just wrote about Decker and expressed some concern that they might not understand what they’d bought in Sanuk and that they might try to distribute it in ways that wouldn’t help the brand. 
 
Obviously E.Land will offer OTZ some opportunities to expand distribution. I hope the independence that OTZ has been promised extends to having control over when, where, what kinds of stores the brand goes into. I’m also wondering if we can expect more acquisition from E.Land in our space.

VF’s Strategy; Why it is Consistent with the Competitive Environment

VF filed its 10K annual report with the SEC three days ago, so I’ve been able to get a more complete picture of their performance for the year and quarter. You can see that report here. As you probably know, VF is a large consumer conglomerate that owns 30 brands including Vans, The North Face, Reef and Timberland which are part of its Outdoor and Action Sports segment. Its other segments include Jeanswear, Imagewear, Sportswear and Contemporary Brands. We’ll talk about the general strategy and focus on Outdoor and Action Sports. 

Pieces of the Strategy
 
Revenue for the year rose 15% as reported from $9.46 to $10.88 billion. Not following my usual process, I want to jump right to the balance sheet and report that inventory fell 6.8% over the year from $1.45 to $1.35 billion. Partly what’s going on here is that they are getting their Timberland acquisition (purchased in September of 2011) under control. But typically, you’d expect inventory to rise some with sales and when it’s doesn’t, it’s a good thing.
 
Now let’s jump to page 1 of the 10K to see what their broad strategy is:
 
“VF’s strategy is to continue transforming our mix of business to include more lifestyle brands. Lifestyle brands connect closely with consumers because they are aspirational and inspirational; they reflect consumers’ specific activities and interests. Lifestyle brands generally extend across multiple product categories and have higher than average gross margins.”
 
Connection with consumer and higher margins. No wonder they like outdoor and action sports.
 
Meanwhile, over in the conference call, VF Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, President, Member of the Finance Committee and for all I know Czar of all the Russians Eric Wiseman talks about their other focuses.
 
“…an obsessive focus on continuously improving our operational capabilities to drive growth and strong consistent returns to our shareholders; and finally, a highly efficient supply chain that includes owned and sourced manufacturing, which gives us unparalleled structural advantages, including product innovation, speed to market, low cost and outstanding quality. Individually, any one of these strengths would be an enviable asset for any company to have. Yet together, in concert, they’re at the center VF’s DNA and what allows us to be so successful.”
 
Keeping the supply chain efficient is no simple task. From the 10K:
 
“On an annual basis, VF sources or produces approximately 450 million units spread across 36 brands. VF operates 29 manufacturing facilities and utilizes approximately 1,900 contractor manufacturing facilities in 60 countries. We operate 29 distribution centers and 1,129 retail stores. Managing this complexity is made possible by the use of a network of information systems for product development, forecasting, order management and warehouse management, attached to our core enterprise resource management platforms.”
 
I don’t want to put VF on a pedestal here. There’s a never a section in the press release, conference call or SEC filings called “Places where we really, really screwed up.” It does not always go smoothly. 
 
Nor is it ever finished. I wouldn’t be surprised if a big piece of CEO Wiseman’s job was to make sure the whole organization is thinking about incremental ways to make things better. Everybody should be empowered to ask, “If we combine production for these two brands, can we save $0.03 a garment?” “If we make it at a factory we own, will the faster turnaround time mean lower total inventory that offsets the higher cost per piece?”
 
Sales increases are swell, but it’s nice to have ways to improve your profitability by increasing gross margin dollars or controlling expenses if they aren’t easy to come by. And it’s good to have a balance sheet that lets you invests in efficiencies- especially if your competition can’t.
 
VF is trying to do what I’ve been arguing in favor of for years. No wonder I like them.
 
The Outdoor and Action Sports Segment
 
This segment generated $5.87 billion, or 54%, of VF’s revenues for the year. It had an operating profit of $1.02 billion, representing 58% of total operating profit for VF, and an operating margin of 17.4% (higher than other segments with Jeanswear being second at 16.7%). That margin is down from 19.9% in 2010 and18.2% in 2011. The decline is largely due to Timberland.
 
Segment revenues grew 28.6% from $4.56 billion the previous year. Jeanswear is second at $2.79 billion representing 26% of total revenue. It was up only 2.1%. Growth of 6.3% by Sportswear was the second fastest segment growth.
 
But there’s a caveat. Of that 29% growth, 19% was the result of the Timberland acquisition and only 10% was organic (from the existing brands). But 10% organic growth is way better than any of the other segments did, except for “other” which grew 12.5% but was only $125.5 million in revenue for the year. 
 
The North Face is the largest brand in the segment, with Timberland second and Vans third by revenue. There are 100 VF operated North Face stores worldwide. Timberland has 200 stores and Vans 350.
 
Domestically, the whole segment was up 21% but 12% of that came from Timberland. International revenue was up 37% with Timberland representing 26%.
 
The North Face and Vans grew globally 9% and 23% respectively in 2012. Their direct to consumer business, including new store openings, comparable store sales and online, increased 13% and 18% respectively. In 2013, Van’s revenues are expected to be up 20% and The North Face up in the “high single-digit” range. Timberland’s revenues are projected to be up in the “mid-single-digits.”
 
Outside of the Americas, Vans revenue growth was in excess of 30% in constant dollars. It was up 60% in constant dollars in Europe and 20% in Asia. Direct to consumer was “a big part” of this growth.
 
We also learn that Reef’s revenues were up 17%, though we aren’t told anything about what its total revenues are. This is significant only because they haven’t said anything about Reef in the past probably because there was no good news to report. 
 
VF’s total capital expenditures in 2012 were $252 million. Of that total, $156 million or 62% were in Outdoor and Action Sports.
 
Some Overall Numbers
 
VF’s $10.9 billion of 2012 revenue generated $1.09 billion in net income. They spent $585 million on advertising. International revenue was 23% of total. 5% was organic and 18% due to Timberland. Direct to consumer revenue rose 25%, but 15% of that was Timberland. It accounted for 21% of total revenues. They opened 141 retail stores in 2012 and expect to open 160 in 2013. Gross margin improved from 45.8% to 46.5% “…primarily due to the continued shift in the revenue mix towards higher margin businesses, including Outdoor & Action Sports, international and direct-to-consumer.” Hmmm. Sort of seems to leave out North American wholesale business. 
 
For the last quarter of the year, VF’s revenues were $3.03 billion and it earned a net profit of $334 million. No details provided.
 
Okay, don’t stop reading here just because I’m going to talk about pension accounting. This is important. VF made a $100 million voluntary contribution to its pension plan during the year. What’s going on in the world of pensions? Not just at VF. 
 
How much you need to contribute to a pension plan obviously depends on a whole bunch of assumptions involving how many people will get pensions for how long and how much you’ll earn on the money invested in the plan. In 2012, VF assumption was that the rate of return on its pension assets would be 7.5%. They’ve reduced that to 7% in 2013. At the same time, they’ve “…altered the investment mix to improve investment performance.” I won’t go into the details, but from their description, I’d conclude they’ve increased the level of risk in their portfolio to try and earn that lower targeted return.
 
There’s a lot of this going on. Company and government pension plans have found themselves underfunded at least partly because they’ve been stubbornly unrealistic for years about what they could expect to earn on their pension assets. I think they’re still unrealistic. If they reduce the expected rate of return, the required contributions to the plans go up.
 
This is going to be messy. Not for VF necessarily, because they earn a lot of money and can afford to contribute to their pension plan, though obviously it will have some impact on the earnings per share. You’ve already seen some governments have problems in this area. Just be aware is all I’m saying.
 
The Evolution of VF
The Outdoor & Action Sports segment is presently the driver of VF’s success. They’ve acknowledged that in the description of their strategy quoted above that describes the kinds of brands they want to own. If they can improve Timberland’s performance, this will be even truer. As a company, they’ve changed their focus through buying and selling of brands. I don’t expect that to change. They say it won’t. They sold one brand last year. If Outdoor & Action Sports continues to offer the growth and returns it’s getting now, and brands in other segments can’t offer similar ones, I would expect to see further buying and selling of brands by VF.
 

 

Aunt Jenny’s Egg Beater, Hoodies, and Water Heaters; The Evolution of Manufacturing, the Future of Fast Fashion and the Impact of the Internet

My Aunt Jenny died maybe 12 years ago at the age of like 97. I helped clean out her house and one of the things I saved was her egg beater. It was made by the Dazey Manufacturing Company in St. Louis. I don’t know if it’s 60 or 90 years old. The company is out of business. 

I didn’t keep it for sentimental reasons (I mean, it’s an egg beater). I kept it because it’s the best damned egg beater I’ve ever seen and I wouldn’t know what to replace it with. It’s made of heavy duty stainless steel. Except for some paint chips on the handle, it looks and works like the day it was made. It spins so effortlessly and smoothly that it keeps going for north of half a dozen turns after you release the handle and is well balanced and almost vibration free.   No planned obsolescence here.
 
I really miss products like this. I believe that paying more for a product that lasts a long time (if you can find them) is a better financial decision than paying less and having to replace it often.
 
So I was intrigued to find this article on a hoodie made by American Giant. I’ve ordered the full front zip one for $79.00 (shipping included). It’s made in the U.S., only available online, and is supposed to last a long, long time. The product is backordered due, I assume, to all the favorable publicity they’ve had.
 
They started by redesigning the hoodie from scratch, as you’ll read in the article. CEO Bayard Winthrop “…argues that by making clothes in America, he can keep a much closer eye on the quality of his garments, and he can make changes to his line with much more flexibility. An Asian manufacturer wouldn’t have been able to do all of the custom, intricate work that American Giant’s clothes required.”
 
Okay, hold that thought. Let’s move on to the water heater.
 
The December issue of The Atlantic has an article called “The Insourcing Boom” by Charles Fishman which you can read here. Anyway, General Electric owns something called Appliance Park in Louisville, Kentucky. It includes six factories, each as big a suburban shopping center, and it’s where GE use to make all its appliances. It employed 23,000 at its 1973 peak, but only 1,863 by 2011. They tried to sell it in 2008 but there were no takers.
 
But in February, 2012, they started a new line to make their high end GeoSpring water heaters there. On March 20, they started making high end French door refrigerators there. By now, they’ve probably started making a stainless steel dishwasher and they are working on an assembly line to make front loading washers and dryers, the article says.
 
Bringing certain products back to the U.S. to make has to do with higher Chinese labor costs and, for better or worse, lower U.S. ones.   But that’s not the whole story. When they took a close look at the GeoSpring water heater, they found it was a manufacturing nightmare that could only be justified when labor was $0.25 an hour. In their redesign, they cut out 20% of parts and reduced the cost of materials by 25%. They cut required labor hours from 10 in China to 2 in Kentucky. Quality and energy efficiency improved.
 
Okay are you ready for this? The Chinese made product retailed for $1,599. They were able to cut the retail price of the U.S. made one by 19% to $1,299. I assume they are holding their margins or they wouldn’t have done it.
 
Here’s what I said in a recent article talking about U.S. manufacturing.
 
“Once the labor cost differential isn’t so dramatic, then other costs become more important. Travel, freight, time to market (which impacts the amount of inventory you have to hold), communications issues, surprise delays, custom duties, control of intellectual property and quality control are among the costs that may be higher with foreign production. But most general ledgers aren’t set up to isolate those costs.”  I missed, by the way, energy costs which are also making the U. S. more attractive.
 
“It’s an accounting hassle, and no fun. But if you take the time to figure out those costs, you may find there’s a certain logic to making some formerly foreign produced products in the U.S.”
 
I’m guessing the CEOs of both General Electric and American Giant would agree with me.
 
The American Giant business model works because the product is only sold through their web site. They have no brick and mortar retailers. I may be willing to pay for quality, but if you had to add a retailer’s margin in there, it would be out of my price range.
 
Pretty clearly, the internet can facilitate the sale of higher quality products by avoiding a level of distribution and cost. I’m not quite sure if that’s completely good or bad, but it’s a fact. I’ve written before that I thought we were early in the process of figuring out the model for internet and retail coexisting. Here’s an impact I hadn’t thought of until now; it might facilitate U.S. production and higher quality. The benefits of having design, production, marketing and fulfillment in one place are, I suspect, significant. 
 
Let’s distinguish between fast fashion and supply chain and inventory management. Fast fashion (which I define as rapid turnover of artificially supply constrained product) is a marketing idea. Good supply chain and inventory management is necessary to fast fashion, but it would be a good idea even if nobody ever came up with the fast fashion moniker. It can never be bad to be able to react quicker to the market and hold less product in inventory.
 
Every company I write about these days is talking about managing their supply chain better, reducing their time to market and “micromanaging” their inventory. They don’t all use the term fast fashion, but to some extent that’s what they are reacting to or trying to emulate. It’s so universal it seems like a bubble.
 
I’m wondering if fast fashion isn’t a trend that will run its course. I understand the excitement it can generate, but once the novelty wears off, I am uncertain shopping more often for product that isn’t really that well made just because it’s “new” will support a long term business model. 
 
In the days of our ongoing economic malaise, it can be hard to find a lot to be positive about. But as I use Aunt Jenny’s eggbeater to make an omelet, wait with anticipation for a hoodie I expect will last a long, long time and wonder if I should be replacing my water heater, I’m feeling kind of hopeful about what might be an important long term trend back towards higher quality products and domestic manufacturing.