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I see the stream of anecdotes coming across the news: this company's sales are down, another company is holding its own. Business leaders should understand the wide variation of sales performance by businesses all experiencing the same economic underpinnings. Here are two examples I've noticed lately.

The upscale restaurant chain McCormick and Schmick's (NASDAQ:MSSR) reported weak earnings, with same-store sales down while operating costs rose. Seeing that news item, it's easy to think that consumers across the board are cutting back. But a better gauge is to look at ALL the restaurants. One way to do that is via the Census Bureau's retails sales data for restaurants. An easy way is to drill down (free subscription required) on www.FreeLunch.com.

There's a flattening in the past six months, but no real decline. Another way to look at the data is through a compilation of the industry, such as Yahoo Finance's. Take a look at their "leaders and laggards" on restaurant industry revenue growth. You see that other upscale chains, such as Ruth's Chris (NASDAQ:RUTH), is doing pretty well. I also noticed that Rick's Cabaret (NASDAQ:RICK), the chain of strip clubs, is doing well. Now that strikes me as a pretty discretionary purchase. (But maybe there are some who view it as a necessity. No telling.)

Or consider automobile sales. Good data are available from Motor Intelligence. Here's what I learned from them: Bentley sales are way down this year, proving that the luxury market is not immune to economic slowdown. However, sales are up at Rolls Royce, Mercedes and Maserati.

Understanding the economy is important, but even in a weak economy, good companies grow sales and profits.

Source: Restaurant, Automobile Sales: Good Companies in a Weak Economy