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Stage Stores, Inc. (NYSE:SSI)

Q2 2014 Results Earnings Conference Call

August 21, 2014 08:30 AM ET

Executives

Bob Aronson - VP Investor Relations

Michael Glazer - President and CEO

Oded Shein - Chief Financial Officer

Steve Lawrence - Chief Merchandising Officer

Analysts

Heather Balsky - Bank of America

David Mann - Johnson Rice

Jeff Van Sinderen - B. Riley

Bob Drbul - Nomura Securities

Jeff Stein - Northcoast

David Glick - Buckingham Research

Operator

Good morning, and welcome to the Stage Stores’ Conference Call. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode. Later the company will conduct a question and answer session and instructions will follow at that time. As a reminder, this conference call is being recorded. I would now like to introduce your moderator for today's conference call, Mr. Bob Aronson, Vice President, Investor Relations.

Mr. Aronson, please begin your conference call.

Bob Aronson

Thank you, operator. Good morning, and welcome to Stage Stores’ second quarter conference call. With us on the call this morning is Michael Glazer, President and Chief Executive Officer; Oded Shein, Chief Financial Officer; and Steve Lawrence, Chief Merchandising Officer. Also in the room with us is Randi Sonenshein, Senior Vice President Finance and Strategy. Randy joined the company on July 1st from Frenchesco’s where he was Vice President Finance and Investor Relations, among her other responsibilities Randy will be focused on developing opportunities and implementing strategies to drive growth across the company. Michael and Oded will begin the call with some prepared remarks. Following that, we will be available to take your questions.

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 reflected in or implied by our forward-looking statements.

These risks and uncertainties include, but are not limited to, those described in our most recent annual report on Form 10-K filed on April 2, 2014 and most recent quarterly report on Form 10-Q filed on June 10, 2014 and then the comments that are made on this call as well as other factors as may periodically be described in other company filings with the SEC. We encourage you to read these filings. You should not unduly rely on forward-looking statements which speak only as of today’s date and are subject to the Safe Harbor provisions discussed in our SEC filings and on our earnings release from this morning. We disclaim any obligation to update or revise any information discussed in this call or in our other forward-looking statements. We will also reference certain fiscal 2013 adjusted results not drive in accordance with GAAP. Reconciliations of GAAP to non-GAAP adjusted results are included in this morning’s earnings release which is available at stagestoresinc.com in the Investor Relations section under News.

And now with that said, I would like to turn the call over to Michael.

Michael Glazer

Thanks Bob. That was a long introduction. Good morning everyone. Thank you for joining us today. I am going to begin today’s call by commenting on our second quarter performance and strategic initiatives. Oded will then provide financial highlights for the second quarter as well as details of our revised financial outlook. The second quarter was a challenging period for us. Comparable store sales decreased 4.2%, merchandise margins were about flat and our earnings per share were $0.35. Although we had expected the quarter to be difficult from a sales perspective, the decline was more than we anticipated due to reduced traffic and a significant decrease in our clearance sales.

Our sales performance in the second quarter was relatively consistent across geographies nameplates and market sizes. The differences we did see in performance were in the months of the quarter by merchandise category and in the results of our regular price and clearance sales. Both May and June were weak. It wasn’t until the last two weeks of July that sales, driven by a strong start to the back-to-school season reversed course and began improving. That positive momentum has continued into August.

From a merchandise perspective, cosmetics was our best performing category. Thanks to the ongoing growth in Clinique and Estee Lauder. Other areas of strength were the core back-to-school businesses such as children’s and footwear, which are of course brand dominated by Carters, Nike and Skechers. It is also nice to see that our juniors business, which is very trend driven, showed a positive comp. This is a very good sign for the fall season. We also saw strength in key themes such as Activewear across all families of business. Some of the other strong selling trends included maxi skirts and dresses, soft bottoms, and lace and crochet detailing in women’s and juniors.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the major issues for the quarter was a decline in clearance sales. Our sales comp in regular price was nearly flat, but clearance sales were difficult with a high-teen decline for the quarter. We have lower levels of clearance inventory in the quarter. You will recall that last year, we had the consolidation of South Hill and Houston which generated significant sales volume. Unfortunately, we found that in order to generate sales in clearance, we had to promote very aggressively.

The consumer is being very careful in how she shops and the discount level necessary to move our clearance ownership was considerably deeper than we had planned. As we entered, the back half for the year, we have planned specific actions for promotions, clearance and inventory management to help create more of a normal flow of clearance introductions and optimal pricing.

Speaking of inventories, our merchandising team did a terrific job managing our inventories. We ended the quarter with flat comparable store inventories. If you exclude cosmetics which we are intentionally building as part of our strategic plan, the comp store inventories were down by more than 2%. We feel very good about our current level, our content and the freshness of our merchandise.

One standout area of growth in the business continues to be our eCommerce channel which grew double-digits for the quarter. It was encouraging to see the volume ramp up significantly towards the end of July as we moved into the back-to-school period. This gives us confidence that our efforts to grow our eCommerce business are gaining traction. We have expanded the assortments, broadened centralized distribution, and rolled out additional enhancements to the functionality of the site since we replatformed last November.

We recognize that it is critical for us to grow our direct-to-consumer business and we have made that a high, high priority. Though top-line sales declines flowed through to an earnings miss, it is noteworthy that our merchandise margins were close to flat for the quarter. We recognize the deleverage of fixed cost embedded in our gross margins, yet are pleased that our promotional and pricing strategies resulted in stable merchandise margins.

While we are all aware of the pressures we encountered in the second quarter and what was a somewhat difficult retail environment, we continue to have confidence in our merchandise selections, our marketing strategies, our inventory management, our store execution and our growth initiatives. We believe our focus on the following five strategic initiatives will deliver against our sales guidance for the back half of 2014 and towards our broader long term growth plans.

First, growing our cosmetics business through the installation of additional Estee Lauder and Clinique counters continues to be one of our top priorities. During the past quarter, we’ve rolled out new Estee Lauder and Clinique counters in 8 stores in addition to the 13 opened in the first quarter. We will add additional counters in more than 50 stores during the fall season.

Second, we have continued to rollout our new prototype fixture package. By the end of the year, we'll have the new fixture package in over 20% of the chain. This has turned out to be a great investment for our company as the new fixtures have clearly given us a comp store lift and made our stores brighter and easier to shop.

Our third strategic initiative is our mid-third quarter launch and upgrade of our home assortments. We're very excited about the relaunch, about this relaunch under which our merchandised assortments will be broken down into three broad categories, namely kitchen, textiles and gifts. The various selections within these categories will include luggage, towels, cookwear, bedding, smaller electrics, sheets and a slew of attractive gift items. We will also be introducing many familiar brands in these categories.

Number four is core to what we, do which is to emphasize and expand brand offerings that deliver style and value to our customers hometowns. DKNY continues to do well and will be expanded to more locations this fall. Betsy Johnson handbags will be found in our store shortly. Even in cosmetics, we continue to introduce compelling new brands, a significant number of stores will see the prestigious Dior brand in the fourth quarter.

Finally and perhaps the most important initiative involves our eCommerce business, we will improve the functionality, the attractiveness and the customer friendly aspects of this site. We will dramatically change our fulfillment logistics during the fourth quarter by utilizing our distribution center for approximately 50% of purchases. Last year if you will recall, the vast majority of our fulfillment came from stores and created some difficult issues.

In summary, we recognized that second quarter with challenging and we are intensely focused on delivering improved performance results. Our back half plans reflect our belief that the promotional environment will remain competitive and traffic will remain constrained.

Having said that, we expect second half sales to be better than first half sales. This is based on easier comparisons for last year and the sales driving initiatives that I just outlined. It is the strength of our sales initiatives and our ability to manage inventories prudently that gives us confidence in our outlook and future growth potential.

I also want to take this time to thank you all of our hardworking, dedicated and loyal associates for their time and efforts. We are off to a positive start this fall season and I personally look forward to giving everyone an update in November.

That concludes my opening comments, I'm going to now turn the call over to Oded and I will be back to answer any and all of your questions. Oded?

Oded Shein

Thanks Michael and good morning everyone. Net sales for the second quarter were $377 million. Comparable store sales for the quarter decreased 4.2%. Our average unit retail was up 2.1% as our sales mix was more weighted towards regular price merchandise. On a comp basis clearance sales were down in the high teens while regular price merchandise was nearly flat. The gross profits rate for the quarter was 29.8%, compared to 29.6% as reported last year. On an adjusted basis gross margin was a 100 basis points lower than last year.

Merchandise margin decreased 20 basis points. Fixed buying occupancy and distribution costs increased by 80 basis points primarily due to de-leverage in store occupancy as sales decreased. Comparable store inventories were flat mostly due to increased cosmetic inventory to support our new condo initiative. Excluding cosmetics, comp inventory was down 2.7% to last year. As Michael said we’re happy with the content and level of our inventory.

SG&A for the quarter was $93.1 million, $4.4 million better than last year. On an adjusted basis, the expense rate for the quarter was 20 basis points higher than last year. The de-leveraging impact from the quarter’s lower sales was primarily offset by lower advertising costs and higher benefit from our private label credit card program.

With regard to our private label credit card, we continue to see strong growth in the penetration rate for the card during the quarter with an increase of 500 basis points over last year to 41.4%.

EPS for the second quarter was $0.35 per share, this year compared to reported earnings of $0.29 last year and on an adjusted basis $0.45 per share. Capital expenditures for the quarter, net of landlord construction allowances, totaled 15.2 million. We completed two locations and one expansion and installed cosmetic counters in eight stores. Our CapEx plan for the year is approximately 63 million.

Now a few words about our updated guidance. As Michael mentioned, we expect sales in the second half to be better than in the first half. We anticipate that second half comparable store sales will be in the range of flat to up 2%. Total sales for the year are projected to be at 1.610 billion to 1.625 billion. Our EPS guidance range from continuing operations for 2015 is now $1.05 to $1.15. We assume a diluted share count of 32.2 million shares, the tax rate is projected at 37.1% of pre-tax income.

That concludes my remarks, we would now like to open it up for questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

Thank you. (Operator Instructions). Our first question comes from Heather Balsky with Bank of America. Your line is open.

Heather Balsky - Bank of America

Hi, good morning. You lap higher clearance levels as you go through the backhalf of the year. How do you think, you are going to be able to I guess meet your comp guidance and lap those comparisons. Can you talk a little bit more about your strategy? Thanks.

Steve Lawrence

Yes, this is Steve. I will jump in here. Clearly challenging quarter for us; and as you guys remember last year at this time, we were right in the throes of our consolidation and clearing a lot of inventory on both sides of the house as we move to a more combined assortment going forward. As we got through the quarter, our clearance inventories started to level off a little bit and we saw our clearance sales start to get better, obviously tougher earlier in the quarter when we were working with less clearance. We knew this was going to happen. I think the surprise for us really was just how tough clearance sales were. I mean and I think we are kind of suffering from what a lot of people suffered from in second quarter which was a bit of a consumer malaise out there.

As we go forward we continue to pull forward markdowns to keep our inventory fresh and to get ahead of the markdown cadence. So, we really don’t see there being an issue in clearance sales for us in third quarter. And in fourth quarter, we have the appropriate level of inventory out there and we know what our clearance inventory is going to be and really don’t see it being an issue for the rest of the year.

Heather Balsky - Bank of America

Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from David Mann with Johnson Rice. Your line is open.

David Mann - Johnson Rice

Yes, thank you. Along those lines about margin, as you look at the back half, obviously you have very easy comparisons both in comps and margin; can you talk a little more about…

Michael Glazer

David, nothing is easy.

David Mann - Johnson Rice

I am sorry. But I think can you a little bit about how you think the margin puts and takes will play out in the back half, on the gross margin side?

Steve Lawrence

Yes. So, this is Steve once again. So, what you are seeing happen right now is we continue to get ahead of the markdowns cadence. I will be honest with you, I felt like we are little behind the markdown cadence last year. So, I think you will see margins continue to be flattish in third quarter but when we get into fourth quarter, that’s really where we are going to reap a lot of the benefits. If you think back to last year, you guys remember I was talking about just having so much inventory with real soft sales trend that we experienced, we took a lot of clearance markdowns last year in the fourth quarter, but we really didn’t sell a lot of it. And this year I think you’ll see us get payback on having cleaner, fresher inventories heading into holiday. I think you'll see us in a position where -- last year, we really had to push goods to the consumer. The natural demand or pull from the consumer wasn’t as high as we expected from an inventory perspective. And this year with the right-sized inventories, we think we’re going to have higher AURs and you’ll see pretty big margin expansion in fourth quarter.

David Mann - Johnson Rice

And then in terms of the competitive situation, it seems like last year around this time, it’s when things started getting worse as inventories in the channel with your department store competition got out of sync with sales. It seems like coming out of the second quarter with a lot of the reports that is less of an issue. Inventories maybe more controlled out there. Are you seeing any change in the competitive landscape thus far over the last few weeks as business has gotten better?

Steve Lawrence

I’ll tell you, last year was a dogfight. People were very aggressive from a price perspective. I don’t think that’s going to change during the back half of this year. We haven’t certainly seen that at back-to-school. I think when we look at our forward plans; we’re planning to be very aggressive. We’re not planning to ease off the throttles from a promotionality perspective. I think we feel like we have the right balance though, of being appropriately promotional, particularly those key appointment shopping time periods. And I think we feel like with our inventory in a better position this year versus last year, we’re in a good place to take advantage of basically third and fourth quarter opportunities ahead of us.

David Mann - Johnson Rice

And just to clarify, one last question. So, if -- it sounds like August is off to a pretty solid start. I assume it’s somewhere nicely above the 0 to 2 kind of comp you’re guiding for the back half, thus far?

Michael Glazer

Listen, so David, we’re not going to make specific comments and you know better, but it has been very positive; let’s just say it that way.

David Mann - Johnson Rice

Thank you very much.

Operator

Our next question comes from Jeff Van Sinderen with B. Riley. Your line is open.

Jeff Van Sinderen - B. Riley

Good morning. And I just wonder could you give us a little more color on what you have seen for back-to-school so far?

Steve Lawrence

Sure. We actually are pretty excited about how back-to-school has kicked off for us. Last year as we were going through the consolidation, I think we didn’t have good receipt of back-to-school merchandise. So, I think we did a much better job this year getting back-to-school set. It started paying dividends in the second half of July and it’s carried right into August. We’re seeing strength across all families of business in the back-to-school areas. Our kid’s business is very strong; juniors business is very, very good; young men's business very happy with; we're seeing strength in shoes, particularly in athletic and kids’ shoes.

So, we feel really good about what we’re seeing there. We jumped on some key fashion trends. Clearly, everybody out there is talking about how this whole athletic athleisure trend is driving the industry. We have strong statements to that in all of our youth businesses.

In juniors, there are some really exciting trends happening right now between the soft bottom trend and the athletic trend. And I think we have strong positions in both and are really seeing strong results from that.

Jeff Van Sinderen - B. Riley

Okay. So, would it be fair to say that your -- if you look at your back-to-school business at this point versus this point last year, could you say that back-to-school is running positive?

Michael Glazer

Yes, definitely.

Jeff Van Sinderen - B. Riley

Okay, good to hear. And then Oded, can you give us an update on how much eComm is or how much it was as a whole, as a part of the whole business in the quarter?

Oded Shein

Sure. So, eCommerce continued to improve as Michael mentioned, double-digit increase. From a penetration point of view, it's still -- the second quarter was not the very different than the past, we’re still in the 2% to 3% range. But it’s really going to ramp up in the second half of the year, third and especially fourth quarter especially with our new fulfillment strategy, we feel very confident about where we are.

Jeff Van Sinderen - B. Riley

Okay, good. And then just any other color anything outstanding to speak about in the J.C. Penney only markets or is that pretty much status quo?

Michael Glazer

We talked about that Jeff, and the fact that Penney is frankly was a great tailwind for us for quite a while. And then starting in certainly I’d say this year is obviously just kind of a neutral, it’s just - they are our formidable competitor, I’d say that way they’re certainly participating back-to-school and all the obvious things. We think we have some nice advantages over them in the sense that we carry quite a few labels that they don’t have in their stores. But there is really not much to say about it at this point.

Jeff Van Sinderen - B. Riley

Okay. Fair enough. Thanks very much. And good luck for the rest of the quarter.

Michael Glazer

Thanks Jeff.

Operator

Our next question comes from Bob Drbul with Nomura Securities. Your line is open.

Bob Drbul - Nomura Securities

Hi, good morning.

Oded Shein

Good morning.

Michael Glazer

Hey Bob.

Bob Drbul - Nomura Securities

I was wondering if you could comment a little bit more on the home category, you’ve talked about some of the new initiatives. How it’s trended throughout the quarter? And when you look at it competitively, are there any impacts from the other players in your markets that are moving the business around?

Michael Glazer

Sure. I’ll tell you in essence what’s happening in home, the home sales through mostly second quarter weren’t great, honestly but we’re kind of clear in the desk there ramping down receipts that we could position ourselves for the relaunch for that category. So, receipts are flowing in right now, I'd say the changing strategy is we were somewhat wanted to know before in our home business with that heavy emphasis on home decor. And we're going forward the much more balanced assortment, so Michael kind of talked about the three big categories, really kind of soft home, a hard home and then a gift strategy.

So I think we're going to have a lot more balance going forward there. What you'll see is, because we don't have a ton of floor space, right. So we don't have the same amount of floor space as Macy’s or Penney’s that’s devoted to home. We’ve developed, I would say very well curated assortment that kind of gives you the best of the best within each one of those categories.

So if Keurig is the leader in single serve coffee we're going to give you the best assortment of Keurig in the market. We're introducing some new brands, our cookware was a category we really didn't play in before and we're going to have [Calphalon] in most of our stores going forward, which is very exciting, we will balance our luggage portfolio, we are in the path, we're very promotional selling cheap and expensive totes and duffels for under $20, we actually have on Samsonite on the floor along with dockers.

So we have kind of depending upon the category a good, better or good better best. And the thing that’s really exciting which is also new is, we’ve found about 55 stores where we felt like we have the square footage to put an even more expanded assortment in. So in some categories where maybe we only have a good better, you're going to have good better best in those 55 stores and we're going to use those stores as labs to really get out and test ideas that we can expand deeper into the chain. Those stores are some of the first stores that we've gotten set with the new strategy, because we wanted to get them in first and the results in those stores has been spectacular we're very, very excited about it.

Bob Drbul - Nomura

Got it, okay. And I'm wondering if with Randy joining I don't know if she is allowed to comment a little bit, but would be interested in sort of hearing some of her key initiatives or the opportunities that people that there are for stage at this point?

Michael Glazer

We'll let her talk Bob.

Bob Drbul - Nomura

Alright.

Unidentified Company Representative

I am really impressed by the talent in the organization, that’s a key impression coming in why I am excited to be part of the team now. I am also really excited about the opportunities that I can envision for us going forward. It’s premature again to specifics given that I have been here since just July, but we are involved in a robust strategic planning process on how we can best utilize our resources and our capabilities and take advantage of market opportunities that are in front of us.

So I am sure we’ll have more of an update for you in the quarters ahead as we make progress and move forward with this, but for now I would emphasize we have a great team here and it’s my job to help deliver against Michael’s intentions for growth.

Bob Drbul - Nomura Securities

Got it, thank you very much. And I guess the last question I have is, in terms of store openings and closings can you just update us on the plan now for the full year in terms of where you are?

Michael Glazer

Sure so for the year we plan to open 18 new stores, we are going to close, we don’t know the final number yet but it’s usual range of 5 to 10 stores.

Bob Drbul - Nomura Securities

Got it, okay thank you very much.

Operator

Our next question comes from Jeff Stein with Northcoast. Your line is open.

Jeff Stein - Northcoast

Good morning, guys. I am a little bit confused on the second quarter margin trends, you are indicating that you had big clearance, big mark downs on clearance good yet your merchandized margins were flat, which would almost suggest that maybe your margins were up on regular price goods then, I am just wondering why did you have so much trouble clearing your -- getting rid of your clearance goods, did you not start taking your mark downs soon enough? I guess would be my first question. And follow-up would be, what were some of the weak categories in the first quarter I think Michael you called out a bunch of strong performing categories what were some of the weak ones? Thank you.

Michael Glazer

So I think first our biggest problem from a clearance sales perspective was levels. I mean we were running down in inventory and clearance throughout most of the quarter and that was a function of last year we had probably elevated clearance levels space off the consolidation and trying to combine the assortments. So, we knew that going in and we have planned for that. I think what also was difficult though was with weaker consumer sentiment out there, clearance sell throughs we are [writing] in the quarter at the same time. So lower levels coupled with in erosion in sell through on a weekly basis, put us in a place where to get it move and we started promoting it pretty aggressively.

To your point, we did see higher AURs and regular price and higher margins on the regular price piece of the business. So if you look at that, that was actually fairly healthy and we look at that as a good proof point going forward on the business. What was the second part of your question?

Jeff Stein - Northcoast

I was asking about which were some of the weaker categories?

Michael Glazer

Obviously the more clearance impacted categories. So last year we were taking a lot of markdowns in the female side of the business, female apparel that was tough for us, special size is very tough business for us, particularly on the plus side which last year we had a lot of markdowns there. So I would say those are our toughest categories.

Oded Shein

Intimates also was tough.

Michael Glazer

Primarily (inaudible) yes, very strong actually.

Jeff Stein - Northcoast

Okay. Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from David Glick with Buckingham Research. Your line is open.

David Glick - Buckingham Research

Yes. Good morning. Thank you. Just a question. I know you guys don't give quarterly guidance but I just want to make sure that we're thinking about gross margin, merchandise margin and SG&A correctly for the Q3 and Q4 there was a fair amount of differential versus last year in the third and fourth quarter last year when it comes to both gross margin and SG&A. For example, SG&A was down significantly in the fourth quarter, maybe incentive comp, I am not recall exactly, but can you kind of walk us through what the puts and takes on how we should think about, how gross margin, merchandise margin and SG&A should flow? Are there any important differences between the third and fourth quarter please?

Oded Shein

So, last year in the third quarter, sales were down considerably; I think it was 4.6% comp, but margin was good. I think you’ll have a balancing act this year. I think we have a really good sales opportunity, but probably margin is going to suffer a little bit. But in total, it should be positive. And then again in the fourth quarter, we believe we have a very nice gross margin opportunity.

David Glick - Buckingham Research

And how about on the SG&A, it was down pretty significantly in Q4. I presume we should be modeling SG&A up more in dollars in Q4 than Q3?

Oded Shein

Q3 has a bigger SG&A opportunity than Q4…

David Glick - Buckingham Research

Okay.

Oded Shein

At this point.

David Glick - Buckingham Research

Okay. And then just to make sure we’re thinking about this correctly; I know you are not going to be specific. But if you look at the back half of July and front half of August, I think we should assume you guys are running positive comps at this point.

Oded Shein

You can assume. That’s correct.

David Glick - Buckingham Research

Okay. And then just lastly Michael, just curious when you guys updated or confirmed guidance and I think it was mid June, like what changed between then and now that caused you to lower the year, particularly given that kind of finished the quarter strong in the last couple of weeks?

Michael Glazer

I’d tell you David, I think it’s just the proven thing for us to do, the thoughtful thing to do, you never know about that environment out there. And we’ve gotten caught surprised. And I think we’re well prepared and but I think the right thing for us to do is to be prudent in that guidance.

David Glick - Buckingham Research

Okay. Thank you very much. Good luck second half.

Michael Glazer

Thank you.

Operator

(Operator Instructions). Our next question comes from Michael Exstein with Credit Suisse. Your line is open.

Unidentified Analyst

Yes, hi. This is [Lorraine Thompson] on for Michael Exstein. Are you able to give us any more detail on how much credit contributed in the quarter?

Oded Shein

Yes. So, as I mentioned, credit penetration was up 500 basis points which is a really good trend. As for the bottom-line of course was positive as well it was close to $2 million better than last year.

Unidentified Analyst

Got it. Thank you very much.

Operator

I am currently showing no further questions in queue at this time.

Michael Glazer

Okay. Well thank you very much for joining us for this call. We would all of us look forward to talking you again at the end of the third quarter. Have a good day everybody. Thank you.

Operator

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. That does conclude today’s conference. You may all disconnect and everyone have a great day.

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