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Stage Stores, Inc. (NYSE:SSI)

Q2 2009 Earnings Call

August 20, 2009 8:30 am ET

Executives

Bob Aronson - Vice President Investor Relations

Andy Hall - President and Chief Executive Officer

Ed Record - Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Analysts

Robert Drbul – Barclays Capital

Jeff Blaeser - Morgan Joseph

Kenneth Marcus – First New York Investment

David Mann - Johnson Rice

Robin Murchison – Suntrust

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Welcome to Stage Stores Conference Call. I would now like to introduce your moderator for the day’s conference call Mr. Bob Aronson, Vice President Investor Relations.

Bob Aronson

Welcome to Stage Stores Second Quarter Conference Call. Speaking this morning from the company will be Andy Hall, President and Chief Executive Officer, and Ed Record, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. Andy will provide a high level overview of the financial and operational highlights for the second quarter. Ed will discuss the quarter’s financial results in greater detail and will also cover the company’s 2009 third quarter, fourth quarter and full year financial outlooks.

Before they begin I would like to point out that our comments this morning contain forward looking statements. Forward looking statements reflect our expectations regarding future events and operating performance and often contain words such as believe, expect, may, will, should, could, anticipate, plan or similar words.

Such forward looking statements are subject to a number of risks and uncertainties which could cause our actual results to differ materially from those anticipated by the forward looking statements. These risks and uncertainties include but are not limited those described in our most recent annual report on Form 10-K as filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission and other factors as may periodically be described in other company filings with the SEC.

With that said I would like to turn the call over to Andy.

Andy Hall

The economic recession and significantly reduced levels of clearance merchandise resulted in a comparable store sales decrease of 10.7% for the quarter. We feel that our current strategy of controlling inventory levels and expenses is appropriate and we will continue to do so throughout the fall season. We are very happy with our second quarter and spring season merchandise margins which are directly related to our inventory disciplines. We achieved a 186 and 95 basis point improvement in our second quarter and spring season merchandise margin rates respectively.

We ended the second quarter with comparable store inventories down 11% and feel that we are well positioned to deliver a fall season merchandise margin rate in excess of last year. We also tightly controlled expenses and achieved a year over year SG&A expense reduction of $4.7 million while operating 24 more stores. As I said, we will remain focused on expense control throughout the balance of the year.

Another spring season success was growing our cash balance by $35 million. We ended the quarter with no borrowings on our $250 million credit facility and our quarter end cash balance of $61 million exceeded our $53 million of debt obligations.

Moving now to a brief discussion of our major merchandise categories, all families of business experienced a comparable store sales decline in the second quarter. Ladies ready to wear comprised of missy, petites, and plus continued to out perform the company average. Casual sportswear, sublimation, printed knit tops, crops and capri’s continued to show strength. Where now styles and pre-fall color such as greens, blues, teals, browns and oranges are working. Denim was strong throughout the store. We continue to reorder in junior tops, especially animal prints, sublimation and screen tees. Comps for dresses, intimates, men’s and cosmetics also exceeded the company average.

Vendor strength included Levi’s in all zones, Gloria Vanderbilt and US Polo Association in men’s, women’s and kids. We continue to be please with our Hannah and Rebecca Malone private label brands as well as our Palais exclusive Emma James brand. Finally, we are please with the June launch of D.R. by D. Rodriguez, another exclusive label and are comfortable with our fall sales plan of $500,000 in 100 stores.

We plan to open six Estee Lauder and Clinique combination bays in the third quarter. A combination bay is a single installation with separate counters for both Estee Lauder and Clinique and it takes 35% less floor space. There is also a 35% selling cost efficiency. Because of their space and selling cost efficiencies the combination bays may provide us with an opportunity to put Estee Lauder and Clinique into smaller volume stores where an individual counter for each product line would not be fiscally prudent. With these six openings we will have 10 combination bays in test.

Staying on the subject of cosmetics I want to say that I’m extremely excited about the appointment of Christine Johnston to the newly created position of Senior Vice President Cosmetics. Christine comes to us from Macy’s New York and has 20 years of cosmetics related experience. We have consolidated the responsibility for cosmetics buying, planning, allocation, and replenishment for both the Houston and South Hill divisions under Christine. Cosmetics lends itself to this consolidated approach as the vendor structure and product assortments are very similar in all stores regardless of customer demographic, geographic location or climate.

I believe this strategic move along with her stellar reputation in the cosmetics market gives us a tremendous opportunity to aggressively grow our cosmetics business and take advantage of the combined leverage of both divisions.

In looking at second quarter comparable store sales by region, the Mid-Atlantic and South Central performed better then the company average. The Northeast, which was hampered by cooler then normal weather throughout much of the quarter, was the weakest. With regard to comparable store sales by market size, our small markets outperformed our mid-size and large markets by 160 and 210 basis points respectively. In the 100 plus markets that formerly competed against a Goody’s store, comparable store sales were down 2.6% for the quarter.

After closing four stores we ended the second quarter with 743 stores and 13.8 million selling square feet in 39 states. On July 3rd we acquired the Goody’s name through their bankruptcy auction. Originally this $300,000 investment was viewed as a defensive strategy. However, after careful evaluation and analysis we determined that we could capitalize on the Goody’s name in select new store markets in which there’s a strong Goody’s name recognition. On August 6th we opened our first three stores in former Goody’s markets under the Goody’s name. Another five Goody’s stores are opening today and six additional Goody’s stores will be opening over the next three months.

We are taking advantage of the current economic environment by negotiating very attractive lease rates for these new stores. Another positive aspect of these Goody’s locations is our capital investment. Since the former Goody’s store format is comparable to ours the net capital investment in these locations is about one half of the typical new store. As such, our near term store expansion plans will be focused on former Goody’s markets. We expect to open an additional 30 to 35 Goody’s stores.

Progress is being made on our other priorities. We remain on track for a fall pilot of our mark down optimization tool in select merchandize zones and the fall roll out of our new POS software platform. When fully implemented in 2010 the mark down optimization tool will benefit sales and gross margin by providing us with the ability to better manage the timing and depth of our permanent mark downs on a style by style basis.

Our new POS software platform will be more efficient and flexible then our current system at a lower cost. Our North style store realignment was executed successfully and the new merchandise assortments for the 83 affected stores will be fully transitioned by the end of September. The benefits of the realignment include merchandise assortments tailored to the climactic and regional market characteristics, better merchandise receipt timing and an improved clearance cadence. Lastly, we continue to invest in impactful updated visual trend collateral and enhance brand identification throughout the store and I believe our stores have never looked better.

Looking ahead, our belief is that the recession will continue to challenge our operating environment throughout the fall season. Employment concerns and wavering consumer confidence will negatively impact discretionary spending. Our third quarter comparable store sales guidance of -4% to -7% reflects the continued impact of the recession. It also encompasses third quarter benefits of anniversarying Hurricane Ike in September, anniversarying the Peso devaluation in mid-October, market share increases in our 100 plus markets that formerly had a Goody’s, and easier comp comparisons to last year.

Our fourth quarter comparable store guidance of -5% to -8% also reflects the continued recessionary impact as well as benefits from easier comp comparisons, a more favorable holiday calendar, anniversarying the Peso devaluation and market share increases in our 100 plus former Goody’s markets.

We continue to be bullish on our small town business model and feel that our strengths of cash flow, liquidity and balance sheet, combined with our operating philosophy of controlling inventories and expenses provides for a bright post-recession future.

That concludes my remarks. Thank you for your continued support and interest in Stage Stores. I’ll turn the call over to Ed.

Ed Record

I will quickly review our second quarter financial results then I will spend a few minutes talking about our guidance for the third and fourth quarters. Total sales for the second quarter were $342 million a decrease of 8.3% versus last year. The average transaction value was flat for the quarter as a 1% increase in our average unit retail was offset by a 1% decrease in units per transaction. Comparable store sales were down 10.7% driven entirely by reduced transactions.

The private label credit card program continued to perform well. Credit penetration increased 210 basis points during the second quarter on a year over year basis. Delinquency rates defined as 90 days past due remained roughly flat to the first quarter and were improved from year end but remain moderately above last year. Credit limits and customer open to buy remained above last year’s levels.

As you know, we share the portfolio income with the lines data system, the owner of the portfolio. For the second quarter, credit income was up versus last year and we anticipate that credit income will continue to trend above last year for the rest of the year. Second quarter gross profit rate was 29.3% a 73 basis point increase over last year’s rate. Merchandise margins were up 186 basis points and were offset by 113 basis point increase in the buying, occupancy and distribution component of cost of sales.

Merchandise margins once again benefited from our strong inventory control and lower clearance levels. The 113 basis point increase in the buying, occupancy and distribution component resulted from the de-leveraging impact of our negative comparable store sales. On a year to date basis gross profit was 27.3% a 50 basis point reduction to last year’s rate. Merchandise margins were up 95 basis points and were offset by 145 basis point increase in the buying, occupancy and distribution component of cost of sales.

The SG&A rate of 24.5% for the second quarter is 79 basis points higher then last year. Total expenses for the quarter were reduced by $4.7 million or 5.3% versus last year, with the increase in the rate being driven solely by de-leveraging from our lower comparable store sales. SG&A benefited from expense reductions in store expenses and corporate overhead and an increase in credit income.

Store operating costs for the quarter were $465,000 where they were $1.2 million last year. There were no new store openings or relocations during this year’s second quarter. While we opened five new stores and relocated three stores during the same period last year. Note that store opening costs are expensed as incurred and include costs for stores opened in future quarter.

Interest expense for the second quarter was $1.1 million versus $1.2 million last year. Other then the first two days of the quarter we had no borrowings on our revolving credit facility so the interest expense is primarily related to our equipment financing notes. These notes totaled $44 million at the end of the quarter.

The tax rate for the second quarter was 38.3% this year and 38% last year. We earned $9.1 million or $0.24 per share in the second quarter this year. This compares to earnings of $9.7 million or $0.25 per share last year. Our diluted share count this year was 38.5 million shares while it was 39 million shares last year.

We remain financially sound; we ended the quarter with comparable store inventories down 11% and had no borrowings on our $250 million credit facility. Free cash flow for the quarter which we define as net cash provided by operating activities, less capital expenditures, was strong at $47 million. We ended the quarter in a net cash position of $9 million, an improvement of $61 million versus last year.

Capital expenditures for the second quarter net of landlord construction allowances totaled $11 million this year versus $22.6 million in the same period last year. Year to date net capital expenditures are $22.3 million this year versus $43.2 million last year. We continue to anticipate that net capital expenditures in 2009 will be between $45 and $50 million.

That completes my remarks on the second quarter. At this point I would like to review our outlook for the third and fourth quarters. These projections are based on our belief that the economic conditions will remain challenging for the remainder of the year. However, we believe comparable store sales will benefit from the anniversary of Hurricane Ike, a more favorable holiday calendar, the anniversary of the Peso devaluation, market share increases, and 100 plus former Goody’s markets, and easier comparisons to last year.

For the third quarter we expect to report revenues in the range of $318 to $328 million. We are forecasting a comparable store sales decline for the quarter of 4% to 7%. We are projecting a loss of $0.21 to $0.29 per share. We assume a share count of 38.1 million shares. We expect merchandise margins in the quarter as a rate of sales to be flat to up 10 basis points versus last year. We anticipate that the total gross profit rate will be 30 to 40 basis points below last year, at the high end of our sales range, due to the de-leveraging of our buying, occupancy, and distribution costs and a negative comparable store sales environment.

SG&A expenses for the third quarter and total are expected to be flat to 1% below last year as we begin to anniversary the SG&A reductions undertaken in the third quarter of last year. We anticipate that the rate, at the high end of our sales range will be roughly 30 basis points higher then last year. Store opening costs and interest expense are projected to be flat with what we reported for the second quarter.

For the fourth quarter we expect to report revenues in the range of $425 to $438 million. We are forecasting a comparable store sales decline for the quarter of 5% to 8%. We are projecting earnings of $0.54 to $0.65 per share. We assume a share count of 38.8 million shares. We expect merchandise margins in the quarter as a rate of sales to be up over last year by 80 basis points. We anticipate that the total gross profit rate will be 60 to 70 basis points better then last year, at the high end of our sales range, as the de-leveraging impact of the negative comparable store sales on our buying, occupancy, and distribution costs partially offset the merchandise margin increase.

SG&A expenses for the fourth quarter and total are expected to be about 1% to 2% below last year. We anticipate that the rate, at the high end of our sales range will be about 50 basis points higher then last year. Store opening costs will be essentially zero and interest expense is projected to be $1.1 million.

Moving on to our full year outlook, we now expect to report revenues in the range of $1.418 to $1.441 billion, with comparable store sales down 7% to 8.5%. We are tightening the full year EPS guidance range versus our previously communicated range by raising the low end from $0.40 to $0.47 per share while maintaining the high end of the rate at $0.65 per share. We expect merchandise margins for the year as a rate of sales to be up 70 basis points versus last year. At the high end of our sales range we expect the total gross profit rate to be 10 to 20 basis points below last year due to the de-leveraging of the fixed cost components of cost of goods.

SG&A expenses for the year in total are expected to be 3% to 4% below last year. Store opening costs are expected to be $2.1 million. Our tax rate for the year is planned at 38.3%. Depreciation expense is projected to be approximately $61 million and our estimate for interest expense is $4.5 million.

That completes my remarks. At this time Andy and I would like to open up the call for questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Your first question comes from Robert Drbul – Barclays Capital

Robert Drbul – Barclays Capital

On the sales plan and the sales trend, can you guys talk a little bit more about back to school so far what you’re seeing and I guess just a little bit more, you guys are always impacted by the tax free holiday so if you could talk about what you’ve seen so far and if the impacts have been above or below what you thought it would be.

Andy Hall

We’ll be a lot smarter on Monday. We have the Texas tax free is Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of this week and obviously that’s still a significant piece of the August business for us. I think that the environment out there we really can’t talk too much about sales but the environment out there is still one, it’s a recessionary environment. Anecdotally what I hear from others is that back to school continues to be a buy now, wear now, getting later in the season event that continues to trend over the last four or five years that back to school as been later and later as we go along.

Robert Drbul – Barclays Capital

On the Goody’s announcement and the Goody’s name, can you talk about in terms of you say an additional 30 to 35 do you think that can be a larger number? How did you come up with that number in addition to what you’ve already done? Have you given any thought to maybe renaming some of the existing stores that you have, if you think the Goody’s name is that good?

Andy Hall

We had a list of the former Goody’s locations in non-competitive markets where we were not in those markets. The reason we weren’t in those markets because they were already there. That list totaled about 50 stores. When you look at that total list of markets that were attractive to us we’re going to go into about 15 of those markets this year and that leaves 30 to 35 of those markets for future opportunities.

As far as changing an existing name to Goody’s I don’t see that on the radar screen. I think the benefit we’re seeing in these new stores, the three new stores that we opened August 6th really kind of played out as we thought that it would. Those customers knew the Goody’s name, when we opened back up as Goody’s they came into the store, they liked what they saw, obviously it was different format then what Goody’s was running, the products are a little more upscale.

I think they enjoyed what they saw, even the customers that weren’t huge Goody’s fans in the past and were hoping that a Peeble’s store would open in those three markets still came into the store and said we like what we see better then the old Goody’s so we’re okay that you came in under the Goody’s name versus the Peeble’s name. It actually worked out the way we had it drawn out on the chalkboard.

As far as going into a market where we’ve already established the Peeble’s or the Stage or the Belle’s name and changing it to a Goody’s name I don’t think that makes sense and that’s not in the future.

Operator

Your next question comes from Jeff Blaeser - Morgan Joseph

Jeff Blaeser - Morgan Joseph

On the gross margin side obviously there’s always been some volatility quarter to quarter, or seasonally. Has that volatility increased, and if so any major contributors to the quarter over quarter difference?

Ed Record

The margin we operate under which we’ll call our stock ledger margin and how the merchants manage business has been pretty consistent. We continue to see 40 to 50 basis point improvement in that margin. Externally what we’re reporting we are seeing some fluctuations because as we convert that to the cost basis our lower clearance levels seem to be penalizing first and third quarter gross profit rates to the benefit of the second and fourth quarters. For the spring season and the fall season it seems to be evening out but we have been seeing softness in Q1 and Q3 and benefits in Q2 and Q4.

Jeff Blaeser - Morgan Joseph

It sounds like last year’s third quarter that was more of a factor then the hurricanes on the gross margin side?

Ed Record

Yes, because we started to really see our reduced clearance levels as we went into fall season last year. That’s part of the reason we’re flat on a merchandise margin to third quarter but we’re not seeing the bounce back that maybe some of the analysts saw in the third quarter, but we’re getting it back in the fourth quarter.

Jeff Blaeser - Morgan Joseph

On the inventory side obviously you’ve been paring that down quite effectively on a per store and dollar basis. When the dust settles and the economy hopefully picks up do you see that rate going up or are there opportunities that you’re seeing right now to keep inventories for store a little bit lower then you’ve had in the past?

Andy Hall

The silver lining in these downturns is that the organization learns new disciplines and understands the benefit of strong inventory management. Certainly when things turn you’re going to want to increase your inventory and receipts to chase the business. Will we get to inventory levels that we did pre-recession? I don’t know, probably not but I’m not sure that we’re going to get to pre-recession sales levels either because I think when we come out of the recession we’re going to be in a consumer savings rate environment of somewhere between 5% and 7% where pre-recession you were talking about a negative savings rate. We’ll have to play that out.

The benefit of controlling your inventories allows you to play offense and really continue to your receipt plans because it’s really receipts that drive the business not inventory levels. When you look at our fall season receipt plans they’re down about 3%. The reason that we can flow those fall season fresh receipts and drive the business is because we’ve got our inventories under control coming into the season.

The same comment I made at the beginning of the season as well, we had inventories in line so that we could flow our receipts. Obviously we’re getting a little top line sales penalty by not having as much clearance as we’ve had in the past but the offset to that is we’re more profitable as a gross margin rate merchandise margin rate as a percent of sales.

Operator

Your next question comes from Kenneth Marcus – First New York Investment

Kenneth Marcus – First New York Investment

Based on the sales guidance you gave for Q3 for example it strikes me that I guess the gross margin and SG&A guidance seem conservative to me in light of the quarter that you just put up meaning that you just grew gross margin 70 basis point year over year I think and you’re guiding to what a 30% or 40% decline year over year. Even SG&A understanding what you are anniversarying it seems sort of flattish sequentially from Q2 to Q3 even though Q3 obviously is a smaller sales quarter. Is that just a sense of conservatism and if so, is conservatism based on any sales trends or such, are you seeing any improved or diminished linearity?

Ed Record

From a margin standpoint as I talked about with Jeff we continue to see margin shifting out of Q1 and Q3 into Q2 and Q4 predominantly on how we’re converting our retail margin at cost for an external reporting purpose. We do see substantial in the 50 to 70 basis point improvement range in our stock ledger margin that our merchants operate under. However, as we convert that to cost we’re seeing it basically get pushed into the fourth quarter.

Third quarter margins are not where you would like them if you compare them to 2007 but I think that’s kind of runway as we go forward with these lower inventory levels and we’ll get that rate back in the fourth quarter. If you look at the first half of the year you saw that exact same thing. Q1 was much lower then the analysts would have expected and it came back and we were much higher in Q2, so we continue to see that phenomenon.

From an expense standpoint there may be a little bit of conservatism in there. We’re planned basically for flat to $1.00 rate to second quarter. Sales will maybe be slightly lower in the third quarter or at least we’re guided slightly lower, we hope we can achieve second quarter sales in the third quarter. There maybe some opportunity, we always work with the contingency but its pretty close.

Operator

Your next question comes from David Mann - Johnson Rice

David Mann - Johnson Rice

Can you just clarify a little bit in terms of the amount from the credit income that helped in Q2 and how much are you building into your guidance for Q3, Q4?

Ed Record

Credit continues to outpace last year. It wasn’t significant on the total but we are pleased where most people are seeing reductions in their credit income we continue to see improvements. It was about 10 basis points better then planned and 20 to 25 basis point improvement versus last year as a rate of sales.

David Mann - Johnson Rice

Is that the kind of outlook you’re looking for, for Q3, Q4 year over year?

Ed Record

It moderates a little bit in Q4 as the numbers get much bigger and so the improvement dollar wise will be about the same but as a rate drops. Yes, we still expect that improvement to continue throughout the year.

David Mann - Johnson Rice

I think you guys are pretty close to finishing a POS software rollout, can you give us a sense on where you are in that process and how much benefit do you expect in the holiday period that might be in your guidance?

Ed Record

We’re still on tract, we start piloting the new software in the middle of September we expect to have it fully rolled out by the end of October. I would say that there are really no benefits in our guidance from that. I think anything we get would be up side. I do think its going to be hard to quantify. I think we’re going to be much more efficient from that standpoint. It’ll give us greater flexibility in how we communicate to our customers. It’ll improve our customer service on the returns and the speed of the transactions. Of course the cost savings that we expect to generate from the POS is in our expense guidance but that’s not material.

David Mann - Johnson Rice

Can you talk about the general health in Texas given its importance for you guys, the economic health and how it’s impacting your stores?

Andy Hall

We talked a little bit about the Peso devaluation so about October 15th last year the Peso devalued really overnight devalued about 40% and then at times during the last year its been year over year devalued 50%. That’s been certainly a drag on sales for the Texas Valley stores. Again, once we anniversary that in mid-October that should moderate a little bit.

I think Texas, like the rest of the country, you’re seeing employment weaken. Unemployment rates are going up in Texas like they are across the country when you look at the pure rate though its still a little stronger then the balance of the country. Certainly Texas is feeling the effects of the recession just like the rest of the country.

Operator

Your next question comes from Robin Murchison – Suntrust

Robin Murchison – Suntrust

I wondered if you would discuss your plan for the cosmetic category, I’m assuming that was a new hire, Christine Johnston, you may be planning to expand your reach and/or maybe brand coverage?

Andy Hall

I think that all of those are opportunities for us. I think the cosmetics market is an interesting market that I think that we will get a healthier relationship with that market on a combined basis. You would think that they would view us the same as ‘a + b’, ‘a’ being Houston and ‘b’ being South Hill equals ‘c’. I think that we will get a benefit in operating as the combined entity with that market.

Certainly Christine has a wealth of knowledge in cosmetics and certainly when I sat down and talked to her about the opportunity she brought a lot of things to the table that we think are going to be plus business. I think we’re excited about a top line sales opportunity as well as a profitability opportunity as well with Christine’s experience and relationship with the market.

Robin Murchison – Suntrust

With the brand’s you’re carrying now their average regional price point actually are not insignificant compared to department store brands hence it seems that there is some real contribution to your overall consolidated AUR.

Andy Hall

I agree. Certainly cosmetics has the highest AUR of any family of business that operates in the store today. As we said in the past, cosmetics continues to stay pretty strong during the economic downturn as well even though it’s a high AUR business. From a margin standpoint I would tell you that cosmetics kind of falls in the lower third of the families of business from a margin rate standpoint.

Operator

I’m showing no additional questions.

Andy Hall

That completes our call. We appreciate everybody joining us and we look forward to talking to you at the end of the third quarter.

Operator

This does conclude today’s conference. Thank you for your participation and have a wonderful day. You may all disconnect.

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Source: Stage Stores, Inc. Q2 2009 (Qtr End 08/01/09) Earnings Call Transcript
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