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The Pep Boys - Manny, Moe & Jack (NYSE:PBY)

F4Q07 Earnings Call

March 26, 2008 8:30 am ET

Executives

Bernard K. McElroy - Vice President, Chief Accounting Officer, Treasurer

Jeffrey C. Rachor - President, Chief Executive Officer, Director

Harry Yanowitz - Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Analysts

Matt Nemer - Thomas Weisel Partners

Matthew Fassler - Goldman Sachs

Tony Cristello - DB&T Capital Markets

Scot Ciccarelli - RBC Capital Markets

Operator

Greetings and welcome to The Pep Boys fourth quarter 2007 conference call. (Operator Instructions) It is now my pleasure to introduce your host, Mr. Bernie McElroy. Thank you, Mr. McElroy. You may begin.

Bernard K. McElroy

Good morning and thank you for joining us as we discuss Pep Boys' fourth quarter operating and financial results for fiscal 2007. I’m Bernie McElroy, Vice President and Chief Accounting Officer and Treasurer. With me are Jeffrey Rachor, our President and Chief Executive Officer; and Harry Yanowitz, our Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer.

The format of today’s call is as follows; first Jeff will provide opening comments on the quarter and then Harry will review our consolidated statement of operations and provide his commentary on the fourth quarter performance of the company. I will then review our balance sheets and statements of cash flow.

Following the review of the financial statements, Jeff will provide his comments regarding our financial performance. Jeff will then turn the call back to the operator and the three of us will be available to answer any of your questions. The call will end at 9:30 Eastern Time.

Before we begin, I would like to remind everyone that this conference call is governed by the language at the bottom of our press release concerning forward-looking statements as well as SEC Regulation FD. In compliance with these regulations, we are webcasting the conference on www.investorcalendar.com. For anyone on the webcast who does not have the financial statements, presentation slides, or our supplemental financial information, you can access them on our website at www.pepboys.com.

I would like to now turn the conference call over to Jeff Rachor, our President and Chief Executive Officer. Also, could everyone please turn to slide four of the slide presentation. Jeff.

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

Thank you, Bernie. Good morning and thank you for joining The Pep Boys - Manny, Moe and Jack fourth quarter conference call. I’ll begin the call with an overview of fourth quarter operations, then turn the call over to Mr. Harry Yanowitz, our Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, and Mr. Bernie McElroy, our Vice President and Chief Accounting Officer, to walk you through the quarterly and year-end financials in greater detail.

The fourth quarter marked the first important steps of our strategic plan and the initiation of the early execution of the transformation of Pep Boys. Please turn to slide five. As we communicated in Q3 2007 earnings call, we initiated a substantial merchandising transition. First, we targeted the edit and exit of approximately $78 million of non-core and unproductive inventory. You will recall that through our strategic planning process, we determined that certain bigger ticket, non-automotive merchandise carried in our stores were generally low profit or even no-profit sales when evaluated on a fully absorbed basis.

In addition, these non-core products were sending mixed messages to both our associates and customers, impairing our credibility as a focused, core automotive after-market solutions provider. Hence, we chose to leverage the holiday selling season to aggressively sell through the most substantial wave of targeted clearance merchandise. Clearly this was a massive undertaking for the entire organization, especially in light of the economic backdrop which deteriorated significantly as we entered the quarter.

I am very proud of our associate team for rising to the challenge by delivering significant progress against our clearance plan and positioning the company to complete the clearance program on schedule by early Q2 2008.

Despite the material progress in our merchandising transformation, this effort was not without obstacles. An economically fatigued consumer pressured customer counts as we experienced some continued deferral of maintenance in consumer purchasing patterns.

Consumers cherry-picked clearance items in search of bargains, resulting in displacement or substitution of profitable go-forward product sales that contributed to incremental pressures on overall retail margins.

Additional margin pressures isolated to fourth quarter 2007 included higher-than-expected shrink, in part related to store closings; higher freight expenses due to the reduced inventory purchases; and higher-than-expected rebate redemption, a carryover from our legacy merchandising program and third quarter promotional sales.

Harry will have more on the margin implications in just a few minutes.

It’s important to note that we’ve already emerged from the retail margin compression associated with our fourth quarter clearance program. In fact, I am pleased to confirm the current quarter to date retail margins have already rebounded to Q1 2007 rates. While these one-time margin pressures in Q4 2007 were painful, they are behind us and we ended the quarter with a net carrying value of clearance inventory of just $8 million. Once again, we expect to complete our strategic clearance process by early Q2 of 2008.

Please turn to slide six. Q4 2007 marked the eighth consecutive quarter in improved service center sales comps and the third quarter of our service renewal momentum, delivering both improved sales and margin expansion. Our service centers were not immune to the economic headwinds as we experienced some moderation in customer traffic and top line sales. However, I’m proud that our service team delivered positive sales comp despite the obvious economic pressures on our lower demographic consumer.

Tires continue to be a catalyst for our service operations, as pulsing our buy three, get one free promotion has proven to be consistently effective in driving reluctant consumer traffic to our service base.

During Q4, we implemented our burning rubber tire initiative in 42 additional stores. The collective results continue to be compelling so we are rolling out this tire initiative to approximately 200 additional locations. We expect to complete these installations in the next 60 days.

In addition, our focus on stable and adequate staffing of service management and flat rate technicians has provided a solid foundation to grow our service operations. This management and personnel stability has given us the platform to introduce a number of service operational initiatives supported by training aimed at improving the sales and customer experience.

Among these initiatives is a drive-up service process that facilitates a more dealership like personalized service experience. This process also enables us to more effectively conduct an initial inspection and offer add-on services to address safety or maintenance needs while the customer is present, increasing the conversion rate and eliminating inefficient follow-up sales calls.

The early feedback on this process from both our associates and customers has been very positive and maintenance package sales are up dramatically.

We are investing in expanded training programs. Other training initiatives include mastering sales fundamentals, customer handling, and phone skills. The continued rollout of our proprietary service work order software in about half the chain was also completed during the quarter. The remaining stores in the chain are targeted for completion by the end of Q1.

In addition to upgrading a variety of service write-up applications, the service work order software is the enabler of our variable pricing system, a margin optimization model for both service labor and parts. It also gives us the ability to offer instant credit to customers.

Finally, I want to recognize the tremendous organizational effort going in to the customer relationship management, the Internet, customer segmentation, and database marketing. When I arrived in the spring of ’07, Pep Boys was only dabbling in CRM and relating marketing opportunities. For example, the Pep Boys website had not been touched in years and there was not even a process to collect customer e-mail addresses. Since then, our marketing team has doubled their efforts in this high return area, launching an all-new website in the fall of ’07 as the first wave of a multi-tiered Internet strategy. We have already captured millions of customer e-mail addresses and have standardized processes in place to consistently capture customer data to support direct marketing efforts. This focus will enable us to know exactly how Pep Boys' customer is and to more effectively market to their needs directly.

Over time, we will be allocating more of our marketing emphasis to this cost-effective approach to customer engagement and retention. This approach is already making a material impact in our service business but will be a game-changing annuity of future business in the months and years ahead for Pep Boys.

Please turn to slide seven. I want to give the investment community some greater visibility to how our transformation continues to evolve in Q1 2008 and beyond, especially surrounding the remaining merchandising transition. We anticipate the majority of remaining non-core product transition will be substantially complete during Q1 2008. As I already acknowledged, retail margins have already rebounded to Q1 2007 rates. Our gross profit calculation will be impacted by the sale leasebacks, with occupancy increases offset by corresponding reductions in interest. We will obviously call this phenomena out in adjusted reporting and I would encourage you to focus on gross margin or sales minus cost of goods sold before these expenses to better gauge our progress on margin improvements.

While we do not give earnings guidance on a quarterly or annual basis, in light of our strategic transformations impact on 2008 performance, we will be giving some basic assumptions each quarter to help guide you through the sequencing of our business transition. For Q2 2008, we will be in the final wave of clearance and the early ramp-up of our refresh core automotive hard parts update.

This low point of our merchandising transition cycle, together with ongoing economic impact, will impact top line sales -- I want to correct myself, that’s Q1 of 2008.

For Q1 2008, we expect retail comp sales to be negative 9% to 11%, with gross profits ranging from 26% to 27% based on some top line deleveraging of certain costs included in our gross margin calculation.

Service comp assumptions for Q1 2008 also reflect a tough macroeconomic environment countered by better P&L management as follows: service sales comps, flat to up 2%; service gross profit rates, 22% to 24%. In addition, you can expect additional deleveraging of the balance sheet as we expect to close some additional sale leaseback transactions during the quarter.

As you can see, we expect our merchandising transition and the macroeconomic environment to impact Q1 with some meaningful sequential improve in Q2 and beyond. I will have more on the outlook in my closing comments. Please turn to slide eight.

At this time, I would like to turn the call over to our Senior VP and Chief Financial Officer to review this quarter and the full year 2008 in greater detail. Harry.

Harry Yanowitz

Thanks, Jeff. I will lead us through the results for the fourth quarter, primarily the income statement and a few cash flow items, and then turn it over to Bernie to step through the balance sheet and the statement of cash flows.

As with previous quarters, in addition to our GAAP presentation, we have also provided a supplemental line of business information on the last page of our press release. This section of our release provides the line of business performance, including a pro forma for certain items in this quarter, which I will be referring to in my remarks this morning.

First, again from slide eight, sales -- for the quarter, we reported a positive 0.9% comp. As we have improved our staffing and improved consistency in our customer interactions, we saw strength in our higher ticket, higher margin heavy repair work and routine maintenance. Certain more deferrable repairs, like brake jobs, shocks and struts, and tune-ups were a challenge for us. We have a strong value offering and in these times, customers are deferring what they can and seeking out the value Pep Boys offers when they need to do the work.

We experienced substantial retail sales challenges due to our merchandising transition with a negative 7% comp sales and reduced margin rates in retail. The organization undertook a massive effort in-store, in DCs, and in our advertising programs to clear out inventories of non-core and non-productive categories during the quarter.

As we had taken these items, the items in these categories down on price, each of these items sold at a lower revenue level and at a zero margin. The economic backdrop proved to be a difficult environment in which to complete this process as consumers were reluctant to extend themselves in our stores for discretionary items.

On slide nine we compare the results for this quarter with last year. Please note that we’ve presented this year’s results as adjusted for certain items -- $8.5 million of margin due to reduced product margins on our clearance product; $6.2 million of store closing costs announced in Q3; and $6.0 million in [P&O] costs to settle or unwind part of an interest rate swap and the underlying bond discount related to reducing our debt from those sale leaseback proceeds. Please also note that last year was 14-week quarter.

From this adjusted line of business presentation, retail sales for the quarter were $302.1 million, down 7% on comp to last year and retail gross profit rates were down by 740 bps to 21.1%, reflecting the effect of selling clearance product at a zero margin, deleveraging occupancy costs in our definition of gross profit, and reduced margins for promotional activity, greater shrink, and freight.

Please also recall that our occupancy costs reflect the cost of the sale leasebacks in our gross profit rates, whereas the benefit is in our reduced interest costs.

On the service side, adjusted gross profit rate was up slightly to 21.9% from slightly positive sales leverage and efforts to improve pricing and product margins, offset by slightly higher payroll costs.

SG&A at an adjusted $123.3 million compared quite favorably to last year’s $139.8 million, down as a percentage of sales despite pressure from a negative comp. Our cost reduction program, while expected to be lumpy, continues to drive efficiencies into our overhead model.

We had gains on sale in each of this year and last year. Our interest costs adjusted for the cost of repaying indebtedness were down sharply from $11.5 million to $8.8 million, primarily due to the repayment of $163 million of debt principle during the quarter.

From the last page of our supplemental financial information at the bottom of the page, please track net income from a loss of $0.36 to an adjusted loss of $0.09 as compared to $0.15 profit from last year.

Please turn to slide 11, where we note the specifics of the real estate sale leaseback transaction we closed during Q4. We are also pleased to note that we completed yesterday a similar $64 million transaction. Despite a difficult credit environment, we continue to see strong interest in our premium assets and completed each of those transactions at prices consistent with our overall view of valuation of these assets and on similar terms and costs.

At this point, let me turn it over to Bernie.

Bernard K. McElroy

Thanks, Harry. At this point, let’s please turn to the balance sheet. Our cash position was $20.9 million on February 2, 2008, versus $21.9 million at the prior year-end. Merchandise inventories decreased to $561.2 million, or $45.9 million, or 7.6% lower than the fiscal year-end 2006. Our decision to exit certain non-core automotive categories, primarily personal transportation and power equipment, and the subsequent sell-through activity in our fourth quarter of fiscal 2007, resulted in this reduction in inventory.

Our property and equipment, net of accumulated depreciation, was $780.8 million. This was reduced by approximately $56 million of land and building that were sold as part of our 34-store sale leaseback transaction that closed in November 2008 and a reduction of $17 million for assets held for sale related to the stores we closed in the fourth quarter of 2007.

Moving down to accounts payable, this quarter our balance is $259.7 million, or $19.8 million lower than the prior year-end. This includes a $14.2 million trade payable program liability on February 2, 2008, versus a balance of $13.9 million on February 3, 2007. We have provided this program as a convenience for our vendors that allows them to voluntarily factor their receivables from us while we pay according to normal terms.

Our payables to inventory ratio was 46.3% at the end of the current fiscal year versus 46% at the end of February 3, 2007.

Our current maturities of long-term debt is $2.1 million. Total debt net of cash was $381.2 million at the end of fiscal 2007, or $135.4 million less than on February 3, 2007.

Proceeds from the aforementioned sale leaseback transaction were used to prepay our senior secured term loan. Short-term liquidity remains favorable as the company had a $131 million available under its revolving credit facility.

Next, let’s please turn to the consolidated statement of cash flows. Starting in the middle of the page, net cash provided by operating activities was $52.8 million for fiscal 2007. Fiscal 2006, our operating activities provided $92.4 million.

Net cash provided by investing activities was $149.3 million versus $57.3 million used in fiscal 2006. These investing activities were the result of proceeds received from the sale of assets and life insurance policies.

Our cash capital expenditure was $43.1 million in 2007 versus $49.4 million in 2006.

Financing activities decreased net cash by $203 million in fiscal 2007 versus a net use of $61.5 million in fiscal 2006. In fiscal 2007, we prepaid $165 million of debt and settled on $58.2 million of common stock repurchases.

I would now like to turn the call back to Jeff and please turn to slide 13.

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

Thank you, Bernie. I want to wrap up today’s call with an update on our strategic plan and our outlook for the remainder of 2008 and beyond. We continue to believe that Pep Boys' successful future is linked to our lead with DIFM focus. In 2007, we proved that service operations are the profit engine of Pep Boys, as the organization delivered industry-leading sales, margin, and operating profit gains in a difficult macro environment.

I continue to believe we can grow this business on the top line and ultimately expand margins to their historical highs. It is important that I reassure the investment community that continued focus on the operational turnaround at Pep Boys is job one.

In addition to driving the service renewal initiatives, we are committed to the cost reduction and operational efficiency programs that were launched in late 2006. As Harry noted, despite top line pressures, SG&A was down in absolute dollars and as a percent of sales during the quarter. As stated previously, we look for a total of a $90 million run-rate benefit for the full year of 2009.

Despite a challenging sales quarter, substantial cash generation for the full year with modest capital expenditures was delivered. The merchandising transaction is also at the top of Pep Boys priority list. We will focus on the execution of the completion of our substantial non-core clearance through early Q2 2008. On a parallel track, we are ramping up our hard parts coverage and core automotive merchandising assortment. Virtually every category of parts and every automotive product line will be completely updated through our recently launched, more disciplined category management process. The early benefits of these core automotive updates will start to manifest themselves in Q1 and we expect to be fully implemented by the end of Q2.

We believe that gas prices, the housing crisis, and the availability of credit, along with general economic weakness will continue to pressure consumers the first half of 2008, resulting in continued deferral of maintenance and discretionary automotive after-market purchases continuing for another quarter or two.

However, we are optimistic that current deferrals will result in pent-up demand as we progress through the year as the fed’s actions begin to positively impact consumer confidence. In addition, the soft new vehicle market means consumers are keeping vehicles longer, which should also be a catalyst for the automotive after-market and for Pep Boys.

Pep Boys' positioning as the automotive solutions provider of choice for the value conscious consumer has us well-positioned to capitalize on these trends. By mid-year, the clearance will be long behind us and we will have the full benefit of our core automotive merchandise program and hard parts availability.

Simply put, we will be able to say yes more often to our DIY and commercial customers and drive higher margin profitable sales. The current economic backdrop is motivating consumers to look for value. Again, Pep Boys is perfectly positioned to meet these needs.

Our service base and renewed commitments to tires is the differentiator for Pep Boys as we are the only national automotive after market chain that can give the consumer a convenient choice to do it yourself or let one of Pep Boys' ASC certified technicians do it for you.

As Harry noted, an important first step in our strategic plan was the store rationalization and the 31 announced store closings and related clearance. These activities are now complete with a number of closed stores under contract for sale ultimately yielding cash to further delever the balance sheet.

Harry also provided a comprehensive update on our sale leaseback portfolio progress. We remain committed to opportunistically executing these transactions at favorable terms for our shareholders as an attractive piece of long-term financing that allows us to reduce indebtedness and strengthen the balance sheet.

To date, we are pleased with the cap rates and terms that these premium assets are commanding, despite a very volatile market. We will continue to watch the market developments closely and exercise appropriate discipline to obtain executions and valuations that reflect the premium quality of our portfolio and high returns to shareholders.

Operational excellence is a very powerful element of Pep Boys' transformation plan. I am delighted with the impact that our new senior leadership team of experienced automotive after market professionals has had on inspiring a customer focus and performance-based culture. The power is with the people and our leaders have been working around the clock to develop and simplify standardized systems, processes, training, and compensation to motivate and align our associates around the singular goals of consistently delivering a differentiated customer experience based on fast expert customer service.

These initiatives are centered on selling and serving the customer more effectively and increasing associate sales and productivity. While many of these initiatives are in early implementation stages, we are already seeing positive feedback from our customers. Our customer satisfaction survey scores are already trending at record levels with both our DIY and DIFM customers, and this is just the beginning.

I would like to give you a quick update on our business development activities aimed at increasing productivity from our super center retail boxes. Before I do, I want to reiterate that executing the fundamentals of the turnaround and achieve operational excellence is the highest priority for the organization. In no way are we distracting the broader organization’s focus from core operations with these business development activities.

It should also be noted that no incremental capital is required to move these business development activities forward at this time.

First, the burning rubber expanded tires and wheels concept is now operational in 50 stores, with 200 additional stores being rolled out in the next 60 days. The expanded tests confirm that we can drive double-digit tire comps with this concept. The test also helped us refine the model, reducing CapEx associated with the fixturing that supports this initiative significantly.

We are finding that the biggest driver of increased tire sales in the test stores is a greater breadth of tire size coverage, putting our associates in a position to say yes more often to prospective tire customers.

Next, the sublet of excess square footage -- three test case tenant deals are already underway. In addition, the caroffer.com Lane Logic program -- this exciting initiative is starting to ramp up. Again, partnering with Lane Logic, the used car valuation technology company, we’ve launched caroffer.com, an online service that generates cash bids for consumers looking for a convenient, hassle-free way to sell their car.

Much of the transaction is facilitated online but all caroffer.com customers are directed to designated Pep Boys stores, where our service centers serve as drop-off and inspection points, and where the customer transaction is completed.

We have purposely chosen to execute a soft launch to refine our processes and validate the technology. I am pleased to report that our initial beta test in select Dallas stores confirmed proof of concept -- there is clearly a need for this service, the valuation software is effective, and we are achieving targeted gross margins on the cars bought and ultimately sold. Hence we are in the process of expanding this soft launch in 29 additional markets. We will keep you updated on this promising opportunity, a low-risk, potentially high reward vehicle to drive traffic to our stores and generate incremental gross margin productivity from our existing super centers.

Lastly, vehicle rental and one-way truck rental centers -- a significant agreement has been reached with a vendor partner and we’ll be launching in nine test markets in the first quarter. We will continue to evaluate business development concepts that complement our automotive solutions provider orientation, adding value for the after-market consumer and adding incremental gross margin dollars to our super center productivity.

Finally, while we are quietly sourcing potential service spoke locations to ultimately develop prototype markets to validate our hub and spoke return on invested capital model, the organization and myself recognize that we must demonstrate further progress with the core business and improve the balance sheet before any material growth is accelerated. You can look for a test market of the concept to be developed in the next 12 months.

I want to share with you an exciting announcement. Yesterday we confirmed that Pep Boys has selected Zimmerman and Associates as our marketing partner and advertising agency of record. Jordan Zimmerman and his team have an outstanding track record, specializing in turnarounds and the automotive space. Nissan and Auto Nation are among their clients. We look forward to leveraging Zimmerman’s expertise to reinvigorate the Pep Boys brand, Manny, Moe, and Jack, and to support our efforts to overcome store density handicaps by tailoring our marketing to each unique DMA while increasing the cost effectiveness of our ad spend. They are charged with one mission -- drive customer count, improve sales, and inspire brand loyalty.

I want to close by expressing my appreciation to each and every Pep Boys associate for their support during this difficult transformation quarter and for their commitment to our long-term transformation plan at Pep Boys. I also want to thank our vendor partners for their ongoing support.

And at this time, I certainly want to recognize my colleague, our Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Mr. Harry Yanowitz. As you know, Harry informed us early this year that he would be leaving to pursue his entrepreneurial interest. Harry has served the company in a variety of roles over his five-year tenure, contributing a meaningful force of stable leadership during some turbulent cycles with the company. On behalf of the Pep Boys Board of Directors and the entire organization, I want to thank Harry for his invaluable service to the company. We wish him the very best in his new endeavors.

Harry will be winding down later next month, but I am pleased to report that we are in the final stages of our search for a new CFO and expect to have an outstanding addition to our leadership team in place within 30 to 60 days.

Before I take questions, I want to reiterate our optimism surrounding Pep Boys' strategic plan and future sustainable success. The short-term pain associated with the tough but necessary decisions that impacted Q4 needed to be taken to reposition Pep Boys for long-term viability and higher returns to shareholders. We are very constructive on the next two quarters and look forward to fully harvesting the yield of our substantial restructuring efforts in the second half of the year and beyond.

At this time, we’d be glad to take your questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Our first question comes from the line of Matt Nemer with Thomas Weisel Partners.

Matt Nemer - Thomas Weisel Partners

Good morning, everyone. My first question was on SG&A. The $17 million year-over-year decline, can you give us any additional detail on the components of that?

Bernard K. McElroy

Sure, Matt. First note there are two pieces to that -- one is that it was a 14-week quarter last year, which was part of the expense. But you won’t know, despite a negative comp we were down as a percentage of sales and it really reflects the four or five big items that we’ve been working against -- overhead here in the support office, primarily driven by payroll. We have a set of cost initiatives around distribution expenses, systems costs, operating expenses within this facility to drive that overall and SG&A expense, so part of that also reflects our efforts in the store model to reduce the expense structure, particularly around our retail model.

Remember, as we had added some of these additional product lines, they had required a certain amount of SG&A in the stores and we’re being thoughtful as we phase those product lines out to make sure that we bring those cost structures back in.

Matt Nemer - Thomas Weisel Partners

Got it. And then in terms of the real estate portfolio, is it -- the right way to think about this that it was $1.3 billion in value minus the 166 minus the 64, leaving you with about $1 billion of real estate value left?

Bernard K. McElroy

Yes, again we’ve tried to make sure that people bracket those values. As we go through these executions, we are continuing to find people are interested in the quality of the assets, that we are getting to good executions against them. But your approach to valuation is similar to the one we have.

Matt Nemer - Thomas Weisel Partners

And then lastly, Jeff, can you comment at all -- thanks for the commentary on the Lane Logic profit -- target profit per unit. Can you comment at all on the number of units that you are seeing in those Dallas locations? And then secondly, can you just remind me about the rental test that you discussed? What are the basics of that and maybe the general economics?

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

Sure. Really early to give you visibility on units. We are getting a significant website traffic and request for bids. We’ve been buying kind of a car a day in that test, which we really purposely have not promoted significantly at this juncture because we really wanted a soft launch to refine our processes.

We are achieving our targeted gross profit levels at about $800 gross profit on the wholesale of those vehicles -- they are being wholesaled in 2.3 days on average. So we really think we’ve got proof of concept and we are going to start ramping up, as I noted, in an additional number of markets. And as we further refine the processes, we’ll increase the promotional activity. We also have a number through our partner, Lane Logic and Car Offer. We have a number of search engine optimization and strategic marketing partnerships that will be kicking in shortly that we think will drive more demand to our locations.

In terms of the rental center initiative, again this was just one of a number of pilots where we have gone out to some of the rental car and one-way truck rental companies and in this case, we’ve initiated a relationship that will result in nine tests where we simply clear off a few hundred square feet of space for a rental counter and a few parking spots and can generate material incremental activity and gross margin dollars to help offset the overhead and increase the productivity of our retail boxes.

A follow-up comment, Matt -- I know you’ve done a great job of modeling that Car Offer Lane Logic concept, but that is a revenue sharing model and so the 800 targeted gross profit number obviously is diluted by that partnership but there are also fees that we throw into that bucket that are derived from the inspection and over time we also expect some reconditioning revenues as a result of that initiative.

Matt Nemer - Thomas Weisel Partners

And just to clarify -- the rental deal is more than a real estate transaction. You are actually sharing in the profit from --

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

Yes, we are actually going to pilot two different concepts, one where it’s an outright share and one where we are strictly receiving a commission, if you will. And we think that that’s going to be the right model for us, where essentially in exchange for a little bit of space and awareness, that we’ll receive significant commissions on the activity from those rental centers.

We also like the fact that it drives incremental traffic to our stores. And if you’ve noticed, most of the initiatives that we’ve chosen are going to drive not just incremental gross margin dollars through their own business model but also bring incremental traffic to our destination super center locations.

Matt Nemer - Thomas Weisel Partners

Great. Thanks very much.

Operator

Our next question comes from the line of Matthew Fassler with Goldman Sachs.

Matthew Fassler - Goldman Sachs

Thanks a lot and good morning to you. A couple of questions I’d like to ask on the results. First of all, if you think about the impact of the merchandise clearance process, can you just explain the way the economics of that process impacted your business in the fourth quarter? You excluded a few million dollars of gross margin hit but how much of the comp dollar, comp sales dollars that you generated related to the merchandise that you sold at low margin?

And then just to revisit it, Harry I think you addressed or what you essentially said was that even backing that out, gross margin was down pretty substantial. And I think you gave a number of reasons for that. I just want to make sure that that was the essence of the point that you made there.

Harry Yanowitz

It was. Let me -- there are a few moving parts within that, as you do note, Matt. Within the quarter, we sold around $35 million of clearance product at a zero margin and as you know, that effectively is a -- dilutes the overall margin rate for the business, or for the line of business for the quarter.

Again, I would note also that we would normally sell that product at around a 30 margin gross rate so that normally would have had a ticket price of $45 million to $50 million, which again on a $300 million quarter is a pretty substantial proportion of our business, so hopefully you get a sense about how much effort and emphasis went into the program, as we were very anxious to make sure that we made our way through this product. Obviously it’s a big transition for us and one we were anxious not to dribble out over a lot of quarters. And we were also frankly very anxious because it was -- you know, our year-end and we were making this significant transition that we left ourselves very well-reserved against the remaining product that was left.

And so hopefully you get a sense from what we’ve disclosed that the remaining exposure against that product is really de minimis. Of what was originally a $33.5 million charge, we left $28.3 million in that reserve bucket at year-end. So again, we will endeavor to update people, make sure you guys get visibility on how that unfolds but we essentially pulled almost all of the effect of this clearance process through our P&L during the course of the quarter.

As you noted, we did have some margin pressures in other parts of our business. We had a pretty big rebate program in the summer that carried on into the fall on a number of items to try to again reduce the exposure of those products that hurt our margins.

In addition, we took some freight off our balance sheet as we shrunk our inventory base. We pulled some freight expense through and our shrink was a bit high for the quarter and for the full year.

Again, as you noted, there were some margin pressures on outside of the business, the store closing and the clearance product really was dominating our merchandise efforts. And fortunately, while it was painful, we really think we’ve gotten ourselves to a spot where we isolated those pieces of pain into Q4 and then in Q1, we’ve seen our product margins bounce back to where we’ve expected them to be and we’ll get the rest of this clearance product out by the end of Q1.

Matthew Fassler - Goldman Sachs

That’s helpful but just a follow-up; so if you sold $35 million of clearance product at a zero margin, you said ordinarily that would have been more like $50 million top line. How much did you sell in those categories last year in the fourth quarter? Would it have been more than 35, more than 50?

Harry Yanowitz

It actually was a very similar amount. Remember, we had 14 weeks last year, so as a percentage of sales in this quarter, those product lines, those categories would typically have been about 8% or 10% of our sales with our merchandise mix, a little bit higher in December, a little bit lower in January.

We actually in discounting did -- while we sold a similar amount, got the volumes back up to kind of reflect a discounted rate but did not substantially raise our revenues in those categories.

Matthew Fassler - Goldman Sachs

So it had no incremental impact on comps. And the comments that Jeff made on Q1, I think you talked about -- correct me if I’m wrong -- either 26% to 27% retail -- I believe it was a retail margin rate as opposed to merchandise margin rate. I’m not sure which of those it was, actually. Whether it was the line of business, classification --

Harry Yanowitz

That was retail gross profit, our external number.

Matthew Fassler - Goldman Sachs

So if you look at retail gross profit, I guess last year that number was, by my calculation anyway, I think 28.5%, so the ongoing -- I guess the merchandise margins are back where you wanted them to be but are you saying that it’s occupancy deleverage on --

Harry Yanowitz

A little bit of occupancy deleveraging and a little bit of deleveraging, yes, just based on the negative comp coming through to -- occupancy is going to be up a bit, just based on our sale leasebacks and the delevering based on the comp.

Matthew Fassler - Goldman Sachs

Okay. Just a couple of other quick ones -- the gain on the sale of properties that you put in the income statement, I know that you did not classify it as a one-time item -- you classified it as continuing operations. Was that similar to the gain you had last year, just simply the premium to book that you captured on the sale leaseback properties?

Harry Yanowitz

It is, yes -- [inaudible] presented to last year.

Matthew Fassler - Goldman Sachs

And Jeff, you commented on the rollout of your -- I guess it’s your order systems for the service business and can you just tell us what that’s replacing? My sense is that that’s replacing a fairly low tech paradigm and what kind of early impact you’ve seen from that effort?

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

Sure. Well, obviously it’s a proprietary system that was developed with a technology partner. It does replace the legacy system. I’m sure that you’re in tune to the undertaking of the implementation and transition to a new system. It requires a lot of training and orientation with our associates, which we’ve been able to support and we are very excited about the new service work order system. I mentioned some of the features. It has terrific capabilities to really execute enterprise wide, variable pricing on both labor and parts, on a store by store, market by market real-time basis. It gives us terrific enterprise wide real-time visibility to all of our key performance indicators and analytics.

Some of the neat features is we can get an instant credit approval and offer credit to a customer on the spot if they have a significant purchase in the service lane or in our retail stores. So while the implementation and transition itself is always a short-term challenge, we are halfway through the implementation of that software and as I noted, we will complete the full implementation over the next 60 days. And we think that as our associates get more comfortable with that more robust software package, that it will be a selling aid and also help us increase customer satisfaction and certainly drive sales and optimize margins on both sides of our business.

Matthew Fassler - Goldman Sachs

And lastly, to get clarity on the Lane Logic program, is that one car a day per store or one car per day enterprise wide?

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

I don’t have the exact data in front of me. We only launched it, Matt, in six stores and so we are averaging activity out of that market in those six stores I think on a couple of cars a day and again, at this juncture, there’s been no meaningful marketing. And we think that there’s tremendous upside as we continue to build awareness. But at this juncture, obviously that activity is not material but we see it as a significant opportunity as consumer awareness builds and as we refine the processes around the program with our partner.

Matthew Fassler - Goldman Sachs

Thank you so much.

Operator

Your next question comes from the line of Tony [Cristello] with DB&T Capital Markets.

Tony Cristello - DB&T Capital Markets

Good morning, gentlemen. Jeff, you talked a lot about more focus on the customer as well. Have you done anything systems wide there to enhance technology or track this information? Maybe if you can talk a little bit about what really has changed from how you managed the customer data in the past to what you think that management of that data is going to give you going forward.

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

Sure. Well, first off, we’ve got a number of training initiatives around improving the sales and customer experience and standardizing those procedures, mainly centered around speed. Obviously we live in a world today that the consumer is driven by convenience. They are short of time and so we’ve really energized our organization around delivering fast, expert service and some of the technologies that we have to support that, certainly the service work order software that I just discussed with Matt will ultimately be an enabler of that activity. But we do measure very objectively our customer feedback and historically, we’ve done that through a telephone survey and we -- while we’ve had a meaningful statistical sample size, we are very excited that several months ago, our new leadership team launched an Internet based customer survey in addition to the telephone survey, and that has dramatically increased our response rate and it also is giving us more comprehensive diagnostics through that comprehensive customer feedback so that we really know what the drivers of customer satisfaction are and what the concerns and complaints are, so that we can address them more expediently.

And as I noted, and I’ll share that information on the next call, we’ve seen a significant increase already in customer satisfaction, and we measure that internally on what we call CSI, or a customer satisfaction index, and that’s made up of two components. One, our customer survey that’s executed either by phone or Internet; and two, by mystery shops that we do via the telephone. And as I noted, we are also putting focus on training and really improving our associates’ ability to handle income phone traffic at our stores as well.

Tony Cristello - DB&T Capital Markets

So it sounds like -- and maybe -- I don’t know if you can share what were some of the things that customers felt you did right versus what were some of the things customers felt like could be improved on? And are those easy fixes for you or are those things that might take some time?

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

Well, I think we’ve already demonstrated that some of them are easy fixes and that’s why we’ve been able to improve those survey scores significantly in really just a 90-day period. Obviously some of them will be somewhat longer term fixes but we believe that we are already energizing the organization around delivering a much more customer focused experience and we think that with that will come higher sales productivity from our associates as well.

And if you really look back over the last several years, Pep Boys has struggled with delivering a consistent customer experience. And when I got here, it was one of the things that I noticed, that we had some outstanding stores that were already delivering customer experiences that exceeded the consumers’ expectations but that we weren’t delivering those standards consistently across the organization. And with the help of our new Chief Operating Officer, Mike Odell, these broad number of other best practices that he’s introduced to the organization and I think we’ve already again really inspired the organization around that goal.

And I think that through processes and disciplined processes and simplifying our processes, that we are going to be able to continue to deliver a more consistent customer experience, recapture customers, and improve customer retention, which had been in decline for several years leading up to the last year or so.

So we are excited about it and as I mentioned, the other thing we are doing is putting a lot of focus and process around getting more information about our customers so that we can market to them and communicate with them more efficiently, more effectively, and more directly.

Tony Cristello - DB&T Capital Markets

Have you done a lot of target marketing to your customers in the past?

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

We have not. As I noted in my comments, that’s one of the big opportunities that I identified early after joining Pep Boys and we have already over the last couple of quarters significantly increased our direct target marketing that is leveraging really our database more effectively. And we think with Zimmerman and Associates help, that we’re going to be able to take an even deeper dive on customer segmentation and target more directly the customers that are geographically convenient to our stores and that are clear prospects for the products and services that we offer, with things like service reminders and predictive software that will enable us to predict when somebody might be ready for tires or their next maintenance service, et cetera.

Tony Cristello - DB&T Capital Markets

Okay, and maybe one question as a follow-on; when you look at then the inventory and you’ve been working down some non-core merchandise, are you -- how is the build-up now in more hard parts, or the parts coverage that is feeding into the service side? And is that also allowing you to get some better scores here with customers?

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

Great observation. It’s going terrific. Obviously we wish that it was completed but it’s a massive undertaking. Frankly, over the last several years that the organization put a lot of focus on these non-core promotional categories, the hard parts coverage updates and core automotive merchandising updates were neglected and I’m thrilled with the impact that our new head merchant, Scott Web, and his team are making. As you know, Scott brings 23 years of experience from AutoZone and he and his team are updating virtually every single category of hard parts, increasing our coverage to make it late and great. We are also updating all of the personalization items and other core automotive offerings on our sales floor.

And as I mentioned in my comments, are we in the early stages of that. We’ll certainly get some benefit from that. We are seeing benefits already and even though our overall top line is off as planned as a result of exiting some of these bigger ticket non-core items, we are seeing consistent sequential improvement in our hard parts performance on a weekly basis and we expect that to continue to improve. And we’ll have that process of category management fully implemented by the end of Q2. And as we have the ability to say yes more often to our customers, then we think we can rebuild some of that customer relationship and ultimately retain those customers for their future DIY and DIFM needs.

Tony Cristello - DB&T Capital Markets

Okay, great. Thank you, guys.

Operator

Our next one comes from Scot Ciccarelli with RBC Capital Markets.

Scot Ciccarelli - RBC Capital Markets

A couple of questions; first, Harry, I’m not sure this is something you can quantify or not but given the historical inventory turns of the clearance merchandise, how much did the clearance activity actually benefit sales in the quarter? Or should we think of it as a wash because there wasn’t any markup on those sales?

Harry Yanowitz

Yeah, there was no markup on the sales so each unit actually got marked down pretty substantially from what their previous pricing was. I’d say again as I was talking about earlier, we sold around $50 million that would have been our previous retail, or $35 million at its cost. And clearly with an interruption and interference in the store, if anything it substantially dropped our core business as we made room in the stores, made room in our advertising, our DCs emptied that product out of the facilities, the core, brought them out of the backroom and moved on to the front and again, as you noted, we left almost all of the reserve that we took against that inventory against the remainder at the end of the quarter. So we didn’t really have anything to buttress those costs or expenses again, so --

Scot Ciccarelli - RBC Capital Markets

But by the same token, you did get some benefit because you probably sold stuff you wouldn’t have sold otherwise, right?

Harry Yanowitz

No, in fact our gross sales were about flat year-on-year.

Scot Ciccarelli - RBC Capital Markets

Okay. All right, that’s helpful. And have you guys seen any kind of change in your conversion rates or is the sales challenge really just on the traffic side?

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

I think we’re seeing pressure on traffic and frankly we are seeing consumers in light of the economic backdrop really put a little less in their basket, so to speak, both on the DIY and the DIFM side. Even with our renewed commitment to core automotive, we have a larger sales floor so even our automotive sales floor items are more discretionary. So we have seen some continued deferral there.

And for instance, on the DIFM side, we’re seeing customers that are coming to us and frankly just are referring a repair out of necessity because they don’t have the money to complete the repair or the full repair at this time.

But as I noted, while we believe that deferral will continue for another quarter or two, we do think that ultimately that deferral results in pent-up demand. We’re not selling women’s handbags here. We are fixing people’s cars and people are going to get their cars fixed. Eventually those squeaky breaks and those bald tires are going to result in a work order in our shops or a DIY purchase at our back counters. And so we remain very bullish on the longer term outlook for the automotive after market.

Scot Ciccarelli - RBC Capital Markets

Okay, that’s helpful. And then finally, the last question is Jeff, can you give us a little bit more detail regarding the store closings? Can you remind us what the annualized run-rate of those stores were and the pace at which they were closed during the course of the quarter?

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

I’m sorry, can you recap that?

Scot Ciccarelli - RBC Capital Markets

There was a number of stores that were closed during the quarter, right? What I’m trying to figure out is what was the sales impact and how should we kind of model out the sales impact going forward from those stores?

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

We closed 31 stores during the course of the quarter. Eleven of them went into disc ops, and so they are out of both -- if you look at the [LB] presentation, they would be out of both years. There was 20 stores which were slightly smaller than an average store but you can pretty well do a pro rata based on store count, again about 4%.

Scot Ciccarelli - RBC Capital Markets

All right, then not dramatically different than norm. Okay. That’s all I got. Thanks, guys.

Bernard K. McElroy

Thank you very much for your participation today.

Jeffrey C. Rachor 

Thanks, everybody.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, this does conclude today’s teleconference. Thank you for your participation. You may disconnect your lines at this time.

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Source: The Pep Boys F4Q07 (Qtr End 2/2/08) Earnings Call Transcript
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