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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Lower-End Consumers Continue To Struggle Despite Proliferation of Dollar Stores

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Lower-End Consumers Continue To Struggle Despite Proliferation of Dollar Stores

The battle for America's poorest consumers intensified Monday (7-28-2014) with Dollar Tree Inc.'s agreement to buy rival Family Dollar Stores Inc. for about $8.5 billion.

The chains thrived during the recession as the number of working Americans living in poverty increased by nearly 40%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The stores appealed to cash-strapped shoppers with bargain-basement prices and locations that were closer to their homes than many Wal-Mart supercenters. The smaller package sizes of everyday items like laundry detergent and cereal fit into the budgets of consumers living paycheck to paycheck.

Updated: August 18, 2014

Dollar Stores Apparently Don't Come Cheap

Dollar General Corp. offered about $9 billion in cash on Monday for rival Family Dollar Stores Inc., looking to elbow out Dollar Tree Inc., which made a competing bid three weeks ago.

Dollar General, the biggest so-called dollar store chain, has long been considered a logical buyer of Family Dollar. Chief Executive Rick Dreiling said he had shown interest in a deal multiple times over the past few years and expressed surprise at the agreement reached between his two rivals.

The acquisition would allow Dollar General to broaden its footprint in rural markets while giving it access to Family Dollar's robust presence in urban areas at a time when retailers are locked in a fierce battle to attract consumers.

Shares of Family Dollar climbed early in Monday's session and topped the per-share offer price of $78.50.

Representatives for Family Dollar and Dollar Tree didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

The combination of Dollar General and Family Dollar, the second biggest deep discounter, would have about 20,000 stores in 46 states, with sales of more than $28 billion, Dollar General said.

Last month's bid from Dollar Tree—the smallest of the three retailers—is worth about $8.5 billion, or $74.50 a share, in cash and stock.

Dollar General was thought to be deterred by the involvement of activist investor Carl Icahn, according to a person familiar with the matter. He had pressured Family Dollar to put itself up for sale and identified Dollar General as an appropriate suitor. 
As he cut its investment in Family Dollar late last month, Mr. Icahn said he was pleased with Family Dollar's deal with Dollar Tree and said he remained hopeful that another potential suitor would emerge.

Mr. Dreiling of Dollar General said Monday that he would postpone his retirement—originally slated to happen by the end of May of next year—to remain as the head of the combined company through May 2016 and added that he may not have announced his retirement if he had known Family Dollar were in play.

The executive has been credited with expanding Dollar General's product offerings, adding more stores and boosting sales during a difficult time for the U.S. economy. His retirement was thought to be a blow for Dollar General's merger prospects.

Todd Vasos, Dollar General's operating chief, would oversee a potential integration of the companies, Mr. Dreiling added.

The dollar store chains thrived during the recession as the number of working Americans living in poverty increased by nearly 40%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The stores appealed to cash-strapped shoppers with bargain-basement prices and locations that were closer to their homes than many Wal-Mart supercenters.

Despite general positive trends for dollar stores, Family Dollar has struggled as it raised some prices in a bid to offset some deeper discounts. At the beginning of the year, the company backed off the strategy and cut prices on about 1,000 items while also announcing plans to close 370 locations this year and slow the pace of new openings.

Mr. Dreiling chalked up Family Dollar's recent struggles to a variety of issues.

"It's a combination of a lot of little things that all add up at the end of the day to one big thing," he said Monday, citing product mix, pricing and store layout. He said that Family Dollar stores would look like Dollar General stores on the inside after a potential integration, although he said it was unclear whether there would be changes to the stores' banners.

Dollar General said it would be prepared to divest 700 stores to avoid antitrust issues and added Goldman Sachs and Citigroup Global Markets Inc. have agreed to provide financing for a deal, including for the $305 million termination fee Dollar Tree would get if Family Dollar ends their deal.

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.

Mr. Icahn has said that the largest among the dollar stores, Dollar General, is a logical buyer. A Dollar General spokeswoman declined to comment Monday (7-28-2014).

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.

Earlier this month, Family Dollar said it would begin a multiyear rollout of beer and wine beginning in 2015 to boost sales and draw more shoppers into its stores. It echoed a move by Wal-Mart, which has spent the past couple of years redesigning stores to make room for more beer, wine and spirits in a bid to double alcohol sales by 2016.

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.

Slowing Customer Traffic Worries U.S. Retailers

Warm Weather Hasn't Dispelled the Doldrums; Container Store Cites a 'Funk'

American Retailers May Have More Than A Weather Problem

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."

Dollar Stores Face an Emptier Future

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

Additional Resources:How Do I Know If I’ve Been Bugged? 

* Operating The Brain By Remote Control

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Dropping Off The Grid: A Growing Movement In America: Part I

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