Lower-End Consumers Continue To Struggle Despite Proliferation of Dollars Stores
Total expenditures by U.S. households that earned less than $30,000 has been flat at an annual total of just over $1 trillion since 2008, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The malaise among America's weakest consumers has been reflected in several straight quarters of declining same-store sales and traffic at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., as well as slowing growth at the dollar stores.
Dollar Tree's acquisition of Family Dollar won't change those dynamics. But the combination of the No. 2 and No. 3 companies in the dollar-store category will create a company with more than 13,000 stores that can squeeze better deals out of its suppliers, giving it more heft to compete against No. 1 Dollar General Corp. and have more clout to counter any fresh moves from Wal-Mart and Target.
"Customers are under pressure," Dollar Tree Chief Executive Bob Sasser said in an interview. "Unfortunately, that's one reason why the space continues to grow."
Mr. Sasser will run the combined companies, which would have more than $18 billion in annual sales. The chains expect to save about $300 million a year as a result of the deal, largely through better buying power and consolidation of their distribution networks.
The merged company plans to maintain both brands. Mr. Sasser said the two chains don't have too much overlap.
While the two share Dollar in their names, they follow different strategies. Dollar Tree sells goods like picture frames and school supplies for a dollar or less and focuses on suburban markets. Family Dollar sells more branded consumer products like Tide detergent and Coca-Cola at a range of discounted prices and targets the urban and rural poor.
Dollar Tree agreed to pay $74.50 a share in stock and cash, a 23% premium to Family Dollar's closing price Friday. Shares in Family Dollar rose 25% to $75.74 on Monday, indicating that some investors think a higher bid could come along. Dollar Tree's shares gained 1.2% to $54.87.
Last month, activist investor Carl Icahn mounted a public campaign for Family Dollar to put itself up for sale, saying the retailer was underperforming compared with its peers. Mr. Icahn on Monday (7-28-2014) welcomed the deal but said he believes there are a handful of potential buyers that could make a better partner for Family Dollar.
U.S. antitrust authorities and Family Dollar's shareholders still must approve the deal.
Executives said they don't plan to close stores but may turn some Family Dollar stores into Dollar Trees, or vice versa, where the existing stores are underperforming.
Dollar stores have been expanding rapidly even as other segments of the industry scale back. The three top dollar-store chains have together added nearly 10,000 stores over the past decade. They now operate a combined 24,000 locations and have projected adding at least another 1,000 stores this year.
Dollar stores have posed a competitive threat to other discount retailers. Trips to dollar stores have risen since the financial crisis, with 53% of U.S. shoppers in 2013 saying they went to one in the past month, up from 48% in 2007, according to the consultancy Kantar Retail. Meanwhile, the percentage of U.S. shoppers visiting a Wal-Mart at least once a month fell to 65% in 2013 from 69% in 2007. Some 39% of shoppers made monthly visits to Target in 2013, down from 43% in 2007.
When the economy started improving and companies began hiring, lower-income households were largely shut out of any recovery. Total income for households earning less than $30,000 a year dropped by 1% between 2004 and 2012, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. During that time, total income for households that earned more than $150,000 nearly doubled, the data show.
The sluggish recovery among at the lowest economic rung surprised even Family Dollar, which made a poorly timed bet on a new strategy that involved raising prices and offsetting them with some deep discounts. In January, Family Dollar reversed course by cutting prices on nearly 1,000 items. It also planned to close 370 of its more than 8,000 stores this year and slow down its expansion plans.
The prices at dollar chains can be lower owing to smaller unit counts, but they can be higher per piece. For instance, a 28-pack of Pampers Baby Dry diapers sells for $10, or 35 cents per diaper, on Dollar General's website. But the same size diaper on Wal-Mart's website sells in a 180-pack box for $45.97, or 25 cents per diaper.
The consolidation of Family Dollar and Dollar Tree could offset the pains of market saturation while leaving the combined company in a better position to fight off Wal-Mart's move into dollar stores' territory.
Over the past two years, Wal-Mart nearly doubled the number of smaller stores it operated to 407, and analysts say it could have as many as 2,000 smaller stores in the coming years. Meanwhile, b opened its first TargetExpress store last week aimed at shoppers who want to pick up a few items rather than commit to a bigger, stock-up trip.
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Family Dollar Stores Inc. said fewer shoppers came into its stores in the three months through May 31, pushing sales down 1.8%, excluding newly opened or closed stores.
In a move to win back traffic, the dollar chain said it would begin carrying beer and wine nationally next year, adding to the tobacco, frozen food and other consumables that now make up 73% of sales.
"Our results continue to reflect the economic challenges facing our core customer and an intense competitive environment," Chief Executive Howard Levine said.
The discounter's message echoed that of Container Store Group Inc., whose shares fell sharply midweek after its chief executive told investors that the company and its fellow store chains are in a "retail funk."
"We've come to realize it's more than just weather," Container Store CEO Kip Tindell said. Falling traffic led to the first drop in quarterly sales at the company in more than three years.
Investors flocked to the seller of bins, boxes and shelves when it went public last November, and shares more than doubled on opening day to close at $36.20. But so far this year, shares have dropped nearly 44%, as Container Store has succumbed to some of the pressures weighing on retail broadly.
Results at retailers haven't been uniformly bad this spring. But there are enough negatives to shake earlier hopes that shoppers would whip out their wallets and resume shopping after the long, tough winter. The mixed showing continues to cloud the optimism arising from stronger job growth and rising consumer confidence.
The unemployment rate dropped to 6.1% in June, marking the best stretch of job growth in almost a decade. But five years into the economic expansion, big chains like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kroger Co. remain divided over whether consumers are indeed bouncing back.
Sales at Wal-Mart's U.S. stores have been negative for five straight quarters as traffic has dwindled.
Kroger's shoppers are "exhibiting less cautious spending behavior," CEO Rodney McMullen told investors in June. "More customers perceive the economy to be in recovery" and are shelling out for things like premium pet food and organic products.
But Wal-Mart U.S. President Bill Simon said this week that the declining unemployment rate is doing little to bring shoppers into its stores. In an interview on CNBC, he predicted it would take six months to a year for retailers to start seeing a sales boost from job growth.
Sales at Wal-Mart's U.S. stores, excluding newly opened and closed stores, have fallen for five straight quarters, and traffic has dwindled for a year and a half.
L Brands, parent of Victoria's Secret, said Thursday that its merchandise margin rate dropped in June from the same period last year.
The economy's gains are giving a lift to shoppers who are already better off, but the low-end consumer "isn't gaining traction," Mr. Simon said.
Burberry Group PLC, which caters to those better-off shoppers, on Thursday said retail revenue, adjusted for currency fluctuations, rose 17% to £370 million ($634.84 million) in the fiscal first quarter ended June 30. The fashion house said its biggest challenge right now is the strong British pound.
On Thursday, a handful of chain stores reported sales for June, with uneven results. Costco Wholesale Corp. came in a little stronger than analysts expected, reporting a 6% increase in monthly sales, excluding gasoline. Gap Inc. reported a 2% decrease in June sales, which were stung by a 7% sales drop at its signature Gap stores. Sales at its Old Navy stores increased by 7%.
L Brands, which owns Victoria's Secret and Bath And Body Works, said sales grew 2% last month, falling short of consensus estimates for a 3.1% increase.
Among teen retailers, Zumiez Inc. reported a 3.1% increase. The better-than-planned sales, in part, led the retailer to raise its guidance for the quarter.
Overall, the seven retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters reported a 4.5% increase in June sales, excluding newly opened and closed stores. Thomson Reuters forecast the eight companies to record 4.2% growth versus a 5.4% increase a year earlier.
Near-term trends aside, store chains across the retailing industry are wrestling with what could be a permanent decline in shopper visits. Customers now use their mobile phones and computers to compare promotions, prices and products before heading into a physical store to buy clothes, electronics and increasingly, groceries.
Fewer visits mean fewer chances for impulse purchases as shoppers cherry pick promotions that sometimes produce losses, changing the calculus for retailers that have built their stores around traffic expectations that are now changing.
Lumber Liquidators Holdings Inc. warned late Wednesday that customer traffic in the second quarter was significantly weaker than expected and lowered its financial guidance for the year. Shares in the flooring retailer fell 22% to $55.25 on Thursday.
"Shoppers are making targeted visits to malls and going into fewer stores," said Christopher Ainsley, CEO of ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based data firm that records store visits for retailers using tracking devices installed at 40,000 outlets in the U.S.
ShopperTrak is changing the way it presents its data, as mall owners and retailers come to terms with declining store visits. In reaction to feedback from the retailers ShopperTrak serves, the firm said starting July 17 it would quit reporting results from individual malls and instead report the tallies by ZIP Code.
The firm said its customers wanted a way to understand what was happening in the broader area as opposed to just at individual malls.
Container Store said traffic had declined in the quarter, offset somewhat by higher tickets for the shoppers who did show up. Sales fell by 0.8% in the quarter ended May 31 from a year earlier, excluding newly opened or closed stores, and the company lowered its full-year financial forecast.
The chain's CEO, Mr. Tindell, said Container Store tried to resist the impulse to join other retailers in ramping up discounts to draw shoppers in. Retailers, he said, are training Americans to only come out to shop when there are deals in what has become "the most promotional environment I've seen in my career."
Investors were prepared for weak quarterly results from Family Dollar Stores Inc. Thursday, yet they still managed to disappoint. In reporting earnings that missed estimates, the discounter said it was hurt by a promotional environment, financially constrained consumers and harsh weather. Those excuses didn't wash: The stock fell 3.2%, putting it 23.4% below its September peak.
Indeed, Family Dollar's actions show it is facing more than a mere quarter's worth of problems.
The company plans to close 370 of its roughly 8,100 stores this fiscal year and slow the pace of new store openings in the next one. Even then, though, it is in for a challenge.
Family Dollar and its two main rivals, Dollar General Corp. and Dollar Tree Inc., have expanded rapidly. Combined, they run about 24,100 U.S. stores, up from about 18,600 five years ago. In addition to more competition from one another, they also must vie with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has been pushing prices lower to win back customers.
In addition, a brightening economic outlook may actually pose a problem. According to Wolfe Research's Scott Mushkin, the stores do better when the economy is challenged, with same-store sales negatively correlated with the employment rate and consumer sentiment.
An insidious, longer-term challenge for dollar stores may be their higher exposure to sparsely populated, rural settings versus other retailers. About 69,000 people live within five miles of a typical Family Dollar store, for example, compared with 142,000 people around a typical Target store, according to ISI Group. And rural America is getting emptier; Nearly 60% of rural counties lost population between 2008 and 2013, according to the Brookings Institution.
Monty Henry, Owner
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