A Perspective on Zumiez Accounting Treatments as Reported by Forbes

An article in Forbes called “Great Speculations” had the subtitle “Accounting Smells a Little Fishy Down at the Zumiez Surf Shop.” It calls into question Zumiez’s reported earnings and balance sheet strength due to a couple of their accounting practices. Boardistan called our attention to it and concluded, “Apparently, Zumiez is shifting over to the “whatever it takes” program.” I had a couple of people email it to me, though nobody expressed an opinion. Maybe they thought I’d jump on Zumiez or something or were just pointing out to me that I hadn’t covered either of the issues mentioned by Forbes in my recent analysis. We didn’t hear anything about this in either Transworld Business or Shop- Eat-Surf.

Forbes analysis and explanation was fine as far as it went, though I’d have trouble reaching the same conclusion they reached. I thought it might be useful if I looked in a bit more detail at the two issues they raise. My goal is not just to give you some perspective on the accounting issues, but to show you that the issues are not quite as clear cut as Forbes explained them and to make you leery of short, pithy, articles you read in the popular media. Hopefully, nobody thinks my stuff is pithy. Well, maybe from time to time I’m a little pithy.

I’m going to assume you clicked on the link above and read the article. Let’s start with a little perspective on accounting.
Over many, many years, many people have struggled to figure out what the “right” accounting procedure for certain transactions is. It’s typically obvious what’s just not acceptable. It’s sometimes not so easy to choose from a number of reasonable approaches. Eventually a consensus is reached by the accounting powers that be and they choose a way to do it. The goals are consistency, comparability, and accuracy. Reasonable people can reasonable believe that different approaches are correct.  If you think of accounting as being exact, get over it.
The first thing the Forbes article points out is that Zumiez increased the useful life of its leasehold improvements. That’s the cost of the stuff you do to stores after you lease the space to make them ready to open or to improve how they look. When you increase useful life, you decrease the annual depreciation and so have less reported expense. So your income goes up. Zumiez changed its useful life from the lesser of 7 years or the term of the least to the lesser of 10 years or the term of the lease.
“For the fiscal year ended January 29, 2011, the effect of this change in estimate was to reduce depreciation expense by $4.2 million, increase net income by $2.7 million and increase basic and diluted earnings per share by $0.09,” Zumiez states.
Forbes notes that “…ZUMZ is the only retail com­pany, and 1 of only 9 in the 3000+ com­pa­nies we cover, to increase the esti­mated use­ful life of any of its assets accord­ing to all 10-Ks filed since Jan­u­ary 2010.” There’s a kind of “Aha! We caught you!” sense to the article. But what we don’t know, either from the article or from Zumiez’s 10K is why this is, or is not, a reasonable thing to do.
The other thing that the Forbes article points to is that Zumiez “…car­ries over $310 million (nearly 50% of its mar­ket cap and over 120% of reported net assets) in off-balance sheet debt.” It’s all in footnote 9 in Zumiez 10K; Commitments and Contingencies. The number I see is actually $347 million which is more than Forbes reported. The number for Pacsun, by comparison, is $506 million (they have a lot more stores) and is disclosed in a similar footnote. And you’d find the same thing for other larger, multi-store retailers. In this case, then, we have good comparability.
Should that amount be on the balance sheet? Maybe. The Financial Accounting Standards Board came out with FAS 13 in 1976 to tell companies how to account for leases. It’s been amended quite a few times since then. A link in the Forbes article describes how they are considering requiring that these leases be included on the balance sheet as a liability starting in 2012. 
I should make it clear that the idea of a public company managing (some would say manipulating) their earnings to put their best foot forward is hardly new. There are lots and lots of ways to do that. You change your reserve for bad debts. You can decide to ship and invoice on the last day of the quarter or early in the new quarter to determine what quarter the sales go in. The list goes on. Did Zumiez do something wrong? All we can say, taking the Forbes article at face value, is that increasing the useful life of leasehold improvements is unusual. Is it justified? We don’t know. Does it meet generally accepted accounted principles? Yes.
Not including the lease liabilities on the balance sheet is normal practice. Is it the “best” way to do it?   Damned if I know. Let’s leave that to the Financial Accounting Standards Board.
And if they do change (again) the way leases are accounted for, it will be hard to compare the first year they do that with the previous year’s results. We’ll probably need a footnote to take care of that.  It will be hidden in the back of the report, and you’ll have to go find it and read it. And then there will be some other change, and some other accounting issue will rear its early head. But we still won’t know the “right” way to do the accounting.”
The moral of the story is that there’s a certain inevitable amount of complexity and ambiguity when it comes to evaluating the “quality” of a company’s earnings. We can and will move towards doing it better, but we’ll never get to end of that road. Evaluating a company’s financial statements and their reasonableness probably means you have to get a little dirty back in the footnotes to get a clear perspective. You shouldn’t rely on what Forbes says. Or on what I say for that matter.
But don’t get too dirty. Knowing that Zumiez increased their earnings per share by $0.09 for the year by increasing the useful life of its leasehold improvements doesn’t, by itself, change my evaluation of their market position and strategy. But I’m glad that Forbes highlighted the issues for us to think about.



3 replies
  1. Dave
    Dave says:

    I know it’s all speculation but what’s your opinion on the change as an indicator of their financial health? Maybe this is a little simplified but I did think the the best line in the article was about how a company with good news would have no need to make this kind of change.

    • jeff
      jeff says:

      It is all speculation. There is no right or wrong answer here and the point of what I wrote is that it’s incumbent on us to look at the details to form a reasonable judgement. I still think their financial position is fine. To put it another way, their cash flow currently supports their business model. Would I rather they were generally more conservative with their accounting? Yes, but only up to a point. Is ten years too long to depreciate their leasehold improvements? Maybe it is. Would I want them to write them all off as incurred? No. That wouldn’t represent reality either. A fundamental goal of accounting is to match revenues with expenses. It’s almost always unrealistic to look at one indicator or one accounting change and form an opinion as to a company’s financial health. It’s just not that easy.

      Thanks for the comment.

Comments are closed.