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Neiman Marcus, Inc. (Pending:NMG)

F3Q08 Earnings Call

June 4, 2008 11:00 am ET

Executives

Stacie Shirley - Vice President, Finance and Treasurer

Burton M. Tansky - President and Chief Executive Officer

James E. Skinner - Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Analysts

Grant Jordan - Wachovia

Ann Viglione - Bain Capital

[Ryan Blume] – The Hartford Group

Emily Shanks - Lehman Brothers

Karen Eltrich - Goldman Sachs

Jeff Kobylarz - Stone Harbor Investment

Karru Martinson - Deutsche Bank

[Howard Wireman] - Evergreen Investments

Reid Kim - Merrill Lynch

Carla Casella – JP Morgan

Operator

Welcome to the Neiman Marcus, Inc. Q3 fiscal 2008 earnings conference call. (Operator Instructions) At this time, I would like to turn the conference over to Stacie Shirley.

Stacie Shirley

This is Stacie Shirley, Vice President of Finance for Neiman Marcus. Joining me on the call today is Jim Skinner, our CFO and Burt Tansky, President and CEO of Neiman Marcus, Inc. Before I turn the call over to Burt we have our normal disclosure items to review. The call today involves our view of the future for the businesses that make up Neiman Marcus, Inc.

Any statements referring to the expected future plans and performance of Neiman Marcus are forward-looking statements and actual future results may differ materially from such statements. Please refer to our SEC filings where we include a description of the factors and risks that might cause our future results to differ from what we will be discussing today.

Unless noted otherwise, all references to operating earnings exclude the impact of purchase accounting adjustments related to the acquisition of the company in October 2005. In addition, unless noted otherwise, all statements reflect the sale of Kate Spade and the financial statements have been restated to treat it as discontinued operations. For more details, please refer to our 10-Q filing that we filed this morning.

With that, I will turn the call over to Burt.

Burton M. Tansky

Thank you for joining us today to review our third quarter results. Before we get into the details for the quarter, let me begin with a few comments about the current business environment. It is obvious the entire U.S. retail sector has seen consumer demand diminish this year and this slowdown has also affected some areas of the luxury market.

Based on our experience, we believe the aspirational customer has pulled back in response to the concerns about the economy. We continue to believe, however, that this customer appreciates quality and can be expected to resume a more normal pattern of shopping as the economy strengthens.

As for the pure luxury customer, the affluent to the very affluent, we remain confident that she will and has continued to appreciate the highest standards of quality and service. We have seen the luxury customer adopt a more cautious position when shopping currently. Her purchasing is more focused but our experience tells us that this affluent customer is resilient and does not and will not trade down. She continues to buy quality and this will not change.

This is a challenging time but as with previous cycles, this too in time will pass. We are focused on building our business for the long-term as we always have and we continue to serve our customers at the highest level possible.

And now, let’s review our third quarter results. Total sales decreased 1%, and comparable revenues decreased 2.5% for the quarter. This compares to a 6.1% comp sales increase last year. When it became apparent that demand would fall short of our expectations, we took actions to minimize our inventory exposure. These actions included canceling orders, returning goods to vendors and working with our vendor partners to garner support for needed markdowns.

I am very proud of our organization for quickly recognizing the issue and acting aggressively to bring inventories in line with sales. Even with these actions, our inventory was above our plans and therefore we added promotional events and increased the value of those that already had been planned. As a result, we incurred higher markdowns during the third quarter and as expected our gross margin rate declined 150 basis points compared to last year.

The increased promotional activity is not something we take lightly. Our company has been built on providing our customer an exciting shopping environment, great customer service, and outstanding assortment of the highest quality merchandise.

We understand the economic reality of today and our need to clear excise merchandise. However, once we have our inventories in line with consumer demand, we will strive to eliminate these added events. We know that focusing on off-price selling and promotions is not what our customer nor our vendor partners want and neither do we.

Partially offsetting the margin decline was an improvement in our expense rate. In total, the year-over-year decline in our adjusted operating income was 8% to $167 million. Our adjusted operating margin was 15.7% for the quarter. Jim will provide further details in just a moment.

Now, let me provide you with a brief update of our current business activities. With the declining business environment, much has been written lately regarding corporate investment plans. Again, our focus remains on the long-term success of our company. As always, we continue to apply the strictest return hurdles to our capital projects. We remain fully committed to our investment plans.

At our Specialty Retail Stores division, which includes Neiman Marcus Stores and Bergdorf Goodman, our plans to remodel and new stores remain intact. We have publicly announced six additional locations with planned openings through fiscal 2011. Our next opening marks our 40th full line Neiman Marcus Stores in Topanga, which is in the San Fernando Valley in California. It will open this September.

As for major remodels, the Atlanta store project where we have completely redone the store and added approximately 50,000 square feet is expected to finish construction this fall. We plan to begin two more major remodels in fiscal 2009, as well as a number of minor ones.

At Bergdorf Goodman, we have remodeled part of the main floor in the jewelry area. We just unveiled the new designer jewelry room. This new space designed by the Bergdorf’s in-house team has a luxurious look and feel and now includes over 1600 additional square feet, which on Bergdorf’s main floor are very valuable and will produce a substantial amount of incremental revenue.

And we also continue to build more vendor shops at both the Neiman Marcus Stores and Bergdorf Goodman, which differentiates our stores while adding sales volume and greater productivity. In addition to full line stores, we opened a Last Call Clearance Center in Naples, Florida in May. We plan to open another three stores over the next 12 months; this will bring our total clearance centers to 27.

Our strategy as it relates to clearance differs somewhat from our competitors. Our philosophy is to ensure the customer receives an outstanding value and that all the merchandise is either goods that were in a Neiman Marcus store or goods purchased from one of our existing vendors. Essentially, we view the clearance stores as an efficient way to liquidate inventory from our full priced stores.

During this challenging time, sales at our Last Call stores have remained strong. Over the last two years, we have added infrastructure to support the growth of this business, and we continue to see good opportunities in this area. The last update on real estate relates to our newest concept, CUSP. As we discussed during our second quarter call, we plan to open an additional four to six new CUSP stores over the next 12 to 15 months. We are in the process now of securing locations for these new sites.

In addition, we continue to invest in our other non-real estate related projects as well. Importantly, we have made a significant commitment to logistics and distribution infrastructure that will support our planned growth. This is a multi-year project that we believe will result in improved merchandise sell-through and enhanced gross margin.

Now a few comments on our Direct Marketing segment which includes Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Horchow brands. We achieved a top line sales growth at NMD of 2%, driven by approximately 7% increase in Internet sales compared to last year.

In order to continue our growth at Direct, we have put a number of new technology initiatives in place. These initiatives will deepen our systems, and allow us to more efficiently and proactively manage our businesses. The projects include the recent launch of the cusp.com website. We believe the site includes inventive content and e-commerce capability and the customer has responded positively.

For this site, we have developed a distribution model that allows us to fulfill web orders from the CUSP store inventory in our distribution center. By doing this, we’re able to offer a much wider assortment on our website, while limiting our inventory exposure. We have also developed the capability to now offer the customer the ability to easily ship Neiman Marcus merchandise to Canada, making the process much smoother for our Canadian customers through the automated ability to make payments for duty and taxes through our website.

In addition, we continue to invest in enhanced analyses tools for our merchants and improved search engines, capability for our sites that will increase customer personalization and navigation, including a suggestive selling feature that shows items that may be of interest based on past purchases. And finally, on the bergdorfgoodman.com, we have added a shop by floor feature that enables the customer to virtually shop our Fifth Avenue store floor by floor.

In closing, we are moving forward, assuming the remainder of the calendar 2008 year will continue to be challenging. And although, it is always more exciting when a consumer is active and business is good. However, I believe there are lessons to be learned and disciplines to be applied when the consumer is cautious and business is challenging.

As retailers, we cannot control the economy and the external forces at work in the markets. In this climate, we have to focus on what we can control and change. With that in mind, let me assure you, we are planning conservatively, controlling our expenses, over managing our inventories, and identifying any and all opportunities to improve our financial results, while at the same time investing in our future.

With the progress we have made over the past few years, and the financial strength of the company, we are able to continue to invest in our stores and implement the initiatives we have identified, which will provide us ongoing growth.

During the somewhat unstable times, it can be challenging to remain focused on long-term. However, we have built our businesses over 100 years, and we are committed to do what is necessary to remain true to the rich history in the spirit of our brand.

And now Jim will review the financials in further detail.

James E. Skinner

First, we’ll look at the consolidated results. As Burt mentioned, total sales for the quarter decreased 1% from last year, to $1.06 billion. On a comp basis, sales decreased 2.5%. For the quarter, gross margin decreased approximately 150 basis points compared to last year. Margins declined at both Specialty Retail and Neiman Marcus Direct.

Margins declined primarily due to the following: additional promotional and other events at our Specialty Retail Stores resulting in higher markdowns, and lower level of full-priced selling; in addition, an increase in rent, utilities, and as a percent of sales and the de-leveraging of the fixed expenses on low revenue; in addition, gross margin in our Direct Marketing segment decreased primarily due to the higher usage of free shipping promotions compared to last year.

Now, looking at expenses, as Burt mentioned, we are maintaining tight control of our expenses through very active management expenses we can control. For the third quarter, our SG&A rate improved to about 60 basis points. This improvement is primarily due to lower estimated annual incentive compensation costs of approximately 120 basis points and lower pre-opening expenses of approximately 20 basis points.

Partially offsetting these improvements were higher benefit costs of approximately 30 basis points, due to increases both medical and long-term benefits compared to last year. In addition, higher payroll expenses of approximately 30 basis points, as results of our new store in Natick and our new clearance centers.

And lastly, Neiman Marcus Direct an increase in payroll to sustain the growth in this business and a 20 basis point increase in marketing and advertising costs to support our online operations.

In total, adjusted operating earnings, which exclude certain non-recurring items as detailed in the earnings release, decreased approximately 8% in the third quarter compared to last year. On a rate basis, adjusted operating earnings declined to 15.7% of revenue compared to 16.8% a year ago. This decline reflects the items I just mentioned.

Now let’s do a brief review of our segments. Specialty Retail sales decreased 1.6% for the quarter and on a comp basis, sales declined 3.4%. This is made up of a decline in comparable revenue of 4.4% at Neiman Marcus Stores, offset by an increase in sales in New York City at Bergdorf Goodman of 3.4%. Bergdorf Goodman’s results were on top of a very strong 11.1% last year. We experienced the greatest strength in sales in our stores in Texas and New York City for the quarter.

In merchandise, the categories that experienced great strengths were beauty, precious jewelry and men’s shoes. Operating earnings at the Specialty Retail division were $151 million this quarter compared to $168 million in the prior year, a roughly 10% decrease.

On a rate basis, Specialty Retail Stores’ operating margin was 16.9% compared to 18.5% for the prior year. This decline was due to the things I just mentioned, the factors I just mentioned, including higher markdowns and lower level full priced sales as a result of lower than anticipated demand, deleveraging of fixed buying and operating expenses on a lower sales base, offset by improved expense rate due to lower incentive comp and lower reopening expenses.

At Neiman Marcus Direct, sales for the quarter were $169 million, an increase of approximately 2% off an 8.7% comp a year ago. The 2% increase is comprised of an almost 7% increase in Internet sales, offset by decrease in catalog revenue. Our Internet sales for the quarter were $130 million. From a brand standpoint, our Horchow business continues to be a challenge. Our ongoing softness in the home industry has contributed to a decrease in revenue in the home decor category.

Quarterly operating earnings at Neiman Marcus Direct decreased approximately 6% to $28 million, which represents an operating margin for the third quarter of 16.6%, a decrease of 140 basis points from last year. The decrease in operating margin for the quarter is primarily the result of the increased use of free shipping promotion, along with increased SG&A expenses, primarily marketing and advertising costs incurred to support our online operations.

One last note on the quarter, inventories increased about 5.6% to $959 million compared to a sales decline of 1%. As Burt mentioned, we remain very focused on managing our inventory. We don’t carry over seasonal or fashion merchandise into the next year. So we’ve been taking the necessary steps to adjust our inventory position as appropriate.

There are a few areas where our inventory of basic goods and styles is higher than our desired level. The most appropriate method of reducing this type of inventory, both from a cash flow standpoint and a customer and brand perspective is to liquidate these goods over longer periods of time at full price.

We have made important progress to date through promotions and circular events and believe our inventory levels will be in line by the end of the fiscal year. As result of the higher level of promotions, we do anticipate the markdowns for the fourth quarter this year to be higher than last year.

As I mentioned, we believe our inventory will be in good shape by the end of the year. However, there is one factor that could affect our level of inventory at year-end. Most of our most important vendors have large windows of time to deliver their goods. The fall window begins in June and July.

As we experienced in the past during times of slower customer demand, we may see our vendors shipping fall merchandise earlier in the delivery window. The impact of this could be that we will end our fiscal year with more fall receipts than last year, therefore a higher inventory level at year-end.

As to the current business, the environment remains challenging. Today, we announced our May sales results. Total comparable revenues increased 0.2% for the month of May. Comparable revenue for Specialty Retail Store segments decreased 0.3%, while Neiman Marcus Direct comparable revenues increased 3.6%.

Now Stacie Shirley will discuss a few remaining items before we take your questions.

Stacie Shirley

For the third quarter, we incurred approximately $57 million of net interest expense compared to $64 million last year. The decrease is primarily due to the repricing of our term loan, which we have now fully anniversaried, as well as the pay down of $250 million of debt during fiscal 2007. Our effective income tax rate for the quarter was 39%, which we expect to remain relatively flat going forward.

And just a few comments on our balance sheet, we ended the third quarter with cash of $206 million compared to $177 million a year ago. As Jim mentioned, we have worked to bring our inventory levels more in line with current sales trends and have been purchasing more conservatively.

As a result, our AP balance has decreased. Our AP to inventory ratio has declined a little over 500 basis points, which has impacted our cash balance. Also impacting cash was the $15 million voluntary contribution that we made to our pension plan in the third quarter.

CapEx for the quarter on a gross basis was $45 million, and we received developer contributions of approximately $11 million resulting in net CapEx of $34 million. The majority of this spend was on our new store in Topanga, California and a re-investment into existing stores including major and minor remodels and selling projects.

In addition, approximately 20% of the CapEx this quarter was on IT projects. For fiscal 2008, we expect capital expenditures on a gross basis to be in the range of about $180 to $190 million and on a net basis approximately $145 to $155 million.

We have actively managed our cash balance and believe we are in good shape. There have been some significant shifts from a cash flow perspective this year, but overall our year-to-date cash flow position remains strong and will allow us to continue to make strategic investments for the long-term growth of the company.

Our EBITDA for the third quarter of 2008 was $202 million, which represents a decline of 6% from last year. Our leveraged ratio is approximately 4.3%, as of the end of the third quarter. When we adjust the calculation to reflect the definition per the debt documents, our leverage ratio improves to approximately 4.1 times. This compares to a leverage ratio in excess of six at the time of the acquisition.

And lastly, our very high-level estimate of the general basket for restricted payments is in the range of $460 to $490 million as of the end of the third quarter.

Now I’d like to turn the call over to the operator and we will begin taking your questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Your first question comes from Grant Jordan - Wachovia.

Grant Jordan - Wachovia

Just as it relates to the merchandise you’re purchasing, what inflation have you seen in terms of the price that you’re paying and how that’s going to flow through at retail potentially?

Burton M. Tansky

Well, the inflation obviously from our European designers, the prices have continued to go up based on the dollar-Euro exchange differential on a year-to-year basis, and there’s very little we can do about that. There are certain other factors that are playing into the costs because we’re now being told that there is some inflation on fabrications and cost of labor. But mainly, I believe, the biggest issue is on the exchange rate. And as far as we’re concerned, it’s a pass-along.

Grant Jordan - Wachovia

Any estimate as to what percent you think it ends up being.

Burton M. Tansky

Unfortunately not, because we’ve only just begun, the fall has already been purchased, I don’t have that information, and we’re just starting to buy the spring goods now.

Grant Jordan - Wachovia

And then you’ve talked about you expect your inventory levels to be in good shape by the end of this fiscal year. So I assume that in your mind the fall purchases you’ve made reflect your expectations for consumer demand going into the fall.

Burton M. Tansky

Absolutely, they reflect that, and they reflect a conservative plan, which reflects what we believe the consumers’ action will be this fall.

Grant Jordan - Wachovia

Are there any categories that you’d call out as particularly weak or strong during the quarter?

Burton M. Tansky

Well, there are some categories that have done well. Accessories, our main floor accessory business has done well, better than most, including precious jewelry, designer jewelry, handbags. Our women’s shoe business has held up, men’s shoe business has been very good. Our beauty and cosmetic area has done well. And in the apparel, it’s been a mixed bag. Some of the designers have done well, others have not done nearly as well as we had expected.

And in our contemporary area, by categories, there’s been some very good business. As I said in my prepared comments, customers are very focused and they’re very deliberate in their buying, and they seem to know what’s good and what isn’t, and they’re buying thusly. And so we have some very good businesses and we have some that are not so good.

Operator

Your next question comes from Ann Viglione - Bain Capital.

Ann Viglione - Bain Capital

Could you talk a little bit about sales force productivity and any rationalization plans you have going forward, given the economic conditions?

James E. Skinner

Essentially all of our sales associates are 100% commission. So obviously that’s a variable cost with revenue, pretty directly. Bergdorf’s is a little different from that. But essentially if we look at the full company, our sales associates, what we’re doing, which is probably no different, was as you have turnover, you’re looking do you want to replace that person or not. No different than probably anybody else is doing in this timeframe.

Again it doesn’t really cost us that. The thing you’re trying to balance in our business is, you want to get good coverage, but you also want to make sure that your sales associates that are here are being helped, that we’re providing for them a good economic base of earnings. So that’s what you do. That’s how you look at it is there’s enough turnover that you adjust that level to the level that meets those two criteria.

Operator

Your next question comes from [Ryan Blume] – The Hartford Group.

[Ryan Blume] – The Hartford Group

On the productivity issue in a different manner, you’ve once alluded to the gross margin issue and looking at the peak-to-trough margins with respect to productivity, and I just wanted to know, do you feel that, normalized for some of these items that you’re discounting, that that thesis is still holding relative to your historical performance? Were you able to offset the margin issues with productivity gains? I know you shored out a sales per square foot metric in the 10-Q, but I just want to get a sense from a historical perspective.

James E. Skinner

Obviously, the factors that go into your, if you’re looking at margins, you can decide where you want to look at. Sales, if you look at sales productivity, its customer demand and new stores. New stores seem to be a drag on your productivity, because obviously those are lower productivity shops so sales per square foot is important. As you open more stores, that will tend to drop, comp will drive it up, which is why we’re very focused on productivity.

If you’re looking at margin, the main drivers are going to be your full priced sales to off priced sales. The biggest driver in that is what you have to do to clear goods. If every year we buy goods, we clear goods. So the proportion of off price to full price is what’s the main driver of that.

In the buying obviously there’s a little de-leveraging, again, new stores tends to be a drag on that, if you’re lower productivity. As times get better, the higher productivity on the existing stores will counteract the headwind you get from new stores. I don’t know if that’s more than you want to know. Those are the main factors you have.

[Ryan Blume] – The Hartford Group

During former presentations you had always cited the real issues, not peak-to-trough margins but how you view the productivity metric as the offset. So you’re talking about it in a general respect. I just wanted to know if you’re finding that your productivity metrics are basically offsetting some of the weakness that you would see in the gross margins.

James E. Skinner

The productivity, your sales per square foot, if you have decline in total sales, you have a decline in sales per square foot. So you did not have productivity gains in the third quarter. So you can’t offset productivity gains when you don’t have them.

Burton M. Tansky

Yes. The promotional activity did not offset the productivity we get from full priced selling.

James E. Skinner

What you do is look at your expenses, like what we did, and obviously some of those like incentive comp are designed to be cushioning that. The other thing is just to maintain the rates. We have lot of experience at maintaining the rates. You’ve got to be actively managing those if you have new stores coming in, which is a drag on your expense rate, and slower productivity, you’ve got to be actively managing just to maintain the same rate. That’s where I think we did a great job of really managing our expenses to get that rate down.

The thing that drove it down other than just mechanically is going to be more incentive comp and pre-opening. But the things that caused to us be in a position to only have that one to be the one to have more offsetting ones is really the active management of expenses.

Operator

Your next question comes from Emily Shanks - Lehman Brothers.

Emily Shanks - Lehman Brothers

Stacie, I think you touched on the accounts payable. I just wanted to understand what was driving the differential. It looks like on a ratio to inventory it is down on a sequential and year-over-year basis. How should we think about that?

Stacie Shirley

For this quarter, it just really had to do with the timing of those receipts. So as we had pulled back on some our purchasing, you’re paying on a much quicker timeframe. And I think as far as the fourth quarter, depending on what happens, as Jim mentioned as far as we might see that some of our vendors are going to be shipping earlier in the season. There might be, again, some unusual trends year-over-year as a result of that, depending on how those receipts fall.

James E. Skinner

Those things will right themselves at some point, because you’re not changing your terms. And at the same time you’re pulling back inventory, you’re slowing down your buy, which effectively means, when you think about a quarter, you come into a quarter, you buy the first month. If you at that point start pulling back, you lower your second and third ones, and obviously what we see in the balance sheet is going to be partially the second month and the third month.

So you pull those back. The reason you’re pulling back is because you’re trying to work through your inventory. And so your inventory levels effectively, the amount you pay for it earlier because of the staggering of the receipts, and that’s why you get this number to come down. It rights itself at the point you’re now replenishing at the level you choose to adjust your inventory to.

Emily Shanks - Lehman Brothers

In terms of the comparable stores that are reported for the direct business, does that include Internet sales? I’m just trying to understand.

Stacie Shirley

Direct is just direct. The whole thing is comparable.

Emily Shanks - Lehman Brothers

Are you seeing any easing whatsoever in the competitive price pressures by some of your competitors?

James E. Skinner

As I said everybody, again, I think the main thing that drives us and our competitors to do promotional, it’s not trying to drive traffic, it’s trying to get inventory out the door. I really think, primarily, we can talk about different people, but I think fundamentally as retailers, you’ve got too much inventory, what do I need to get it out the door? That’s what’s driving promotional. It’s not people trying to go get more traffic in general.

Burton M. Tansky

The answer is that the promotional activity will continue as long as the inventories are high. And we’re driving our inventories to a year-end plan and we intend to stay, once we get there, we intend to stay there.

So from our perspective, we hope that the promotional activity will decline, and let me put it another way, will normalize. Because we have certain promotional activities built into our plan, which we’ve been doing for years, and that’s really end of season clearances. The ones in between or the additional ones have been added as a result of need, and we’d like to avoid them in the future.

Operator

Your next question comes from Karen Eltrich - Goldman Sachs.

Karen Eltrich - Goldman Sachs

When we last talked to you, you basically said your free cash flow policy was to hoard cash until you knew the credit markets were stabilized. Is that still what we can expect for the near future?

Stacie Shirley

At this time, yes, I think as we’ve said before, we’re really very much focused on preserving our liquidity until we feel some stabilization in the capital markets. So, we certainly don’t have a cash flow problem at this point. We don’t anticipate having one. We have full availability on our ABL and have continued to invest in our CapEx according to our plan, but we think that that’s the most prudent thing at this point.

Karen Eltrich - Goldman Sachs

You are obviously holding up much better in this environment than basically everyone in your class. But, is this opening up further development opportunities whereby there are some guys in a mall who just aren’t making, we’re hearing about more and more store closures.

Burton M. Tansky

Well, here is the short answer to your question. The answer is no, and I’ll tell you why. We will not accept just any opportunity for further development. We’re very, very disciplined. We have a model that we follow, which is very sharp demographics and psychographics that suit our needs and any deviation from that is unacceptable.

So therefore, because we’re very close to four or five of the major, major developers, and if they have an unusual opportunity from a store closing, where we don’t have a store, they contact us. But we look at it with a very, very discerning eye and we’re not jumping into anything that falls outside of our model.

James E. Skinner

Obviously, if you look over the timeframe, I’ve been here seven years and Burt even longer back, that only when I’ve seen us do that we got lucky on was when Lord & Taylor shut at Boca Raton to a site that we would have liked to have gotten to. So could there be one? Yes. Our vetting process is pretty strict, so the chances of us finding very many is going to be slim. You’d have to get pretty lucky.

Burton M. Tansky

It doesn’t mean it won’t happen. But it’s not something that we’re rushing into blindly or without reserve.

James E. Skinner

Let’s say where it might help us is in Cusp, again, this is not a huge deal. But as we start looking for sites, we’re again being very particular to make sure it’s the right mall in the right location in the right mall. A little downturn may provide some openings on that side. That’s probably where we might see some benefits of that little weaker business for us.

Karen Eltrich - Goldman Sachs

Burt, you had mentioned a year ago how basically the designers didn’t get that fall no longer exists, that it’s much warmer weather, that’s where it is today. Are you seeing them respond to that call? Do you think that the fall lines are a little more weather appropriate this year?

Burton M. Tansky

Yes. I believe that we’re finally getting through slowly. We’re starting to see fabrications and colorations that make some more sense. They’re a 100% not quite yet and one of the things that I think that they have to work on is trying to understand the universe, because their businesses now are exploding in Russia, China and throughout the world where the markets may have different demands.

And the U.S. demand, and we’ve said it time and time again, is very specific in terms of changing the fabrications, and we’re starting to see that they’re starting to listen and we’re making some headway. I think that for fall you’ll be seeing lighter weight fabrications and perhaps a little more color, although black once again surfaced as the color, and plum is the new color for fall which is going to be everywhere.

Karen Eltrich - Goldman Sachs

Any updates on the international expansions.

Burton M. Tansky

Well, our Internet is now alive and transactional in Canada and it has been now for six weeks, and we’re off to a very good start. And as always, on the international side, we have keen interest to try to understand what it all means and how it can be good for us in the future, but there are no plans today for international expansion.

James E. Skinner

One interesting thing is a little experiment this is three cents but we’ve had this relationship with a group over in Japan that actually takes a call center in Japan that you can call in and get Neiman Marcus goods speaking to a native Japanese speaker. One of the little experiments we did, if you’re coming from an Internet address that’s Japanese, there’s a little Japanese word on there that comes up on your main page.

We don’t have it, it’s not transactional, but basically takes you to a page that’s in Japanese to call this number. That’s all it does. You can’t do any transactions; you can’t buy it, but just call this number. Those business effectively doubled by doing essentially nothing. What that tells us is there’s probably, I think we always go with what’s your benefit going overseas, there’s probably some opportunities and we shouldn’t be just thinking bricks and mortar, it’s finding to be broader looking as to what those opportunities are.

Karen Eltrich - Goldman Sachs

I think Bergdorf Goodman belongs in Tokyo, based on that then.

Burton Tansky

Is that your first choice?

Karen Eltrich - Goldman Sachs

Well, Dubai, obviously.

Burton M. Tansky

We know that, and we’re observing the scene and we’re trying to get a better understanding of what it all means. We went to China. I took a team to China a year ago last month, and we found out that there are a considerable amount of barriers and issues that you have to deal with to get into business.

We’re now trying to understand what Dubai means. But there is no plunging and we’re not rushing to do anything that will result in a mistake or will result in a negative. So, we may have more to report to you in the future, but right now, there is nothing more than what I just said.

Operator

Your next question comes from Jeff Kobylarz - Stone Harbor Investment.

Jeff Kobylarz - Stone Harbor Investment

You mentioned about your AP to inventory ratio, down 500 basis points. How does that help your initial merchandise margin?

James E. Skinner

That has nothing to do with margin.

Burton M. Tansky

No, not at all.

James E. Skinner

It’s just cash flow. It’s not paying early. It’s not discounts. It’s not changing the terms.

Stacie Shirley

Yes. It’s just the timing of it.

Jeff Kobylarz - Stone Harbor Investment

Is there any merchandise or categories where there is, say, scarcity or where it’s hard to get your order filled?

Burton M. Tansky

No. I wish that was the case. But that never is. No, there is no shortage of merchandise. The only difference is, is what we’re buying versus what we’ve bought last year, let’s say. Since we’re buying more conservatively, we’re buying less but there is no shortage.

Jeff Kobylarz - Stone Harbor Investment

Can you comment about the trends of sales in your stores in Florida and California?

Burton M. Tansky

Well, California is the most difficult and has been. Texas has done well, as you heard in Jim’s remarks. Florida’s been a mixed bag. Some of the stores are doing quite well and others have been a little bit soft. But I would say that Florida generally is holding up relatively well. California has been challenging.

Jeff Kobylarz - Stone Harbor Investment

Are the trends in California, are they any worse than how they were earlier this year?

Burton M. Tansky

No. No. In fact, they may be even a little bit better but they’re no worse.

Jeff Kobylarz - Stone Harbor Investment

Do you have any general comments about your sales in May? Were there any changes in your timing of promotions?

James E. Skinner

You think like a lot of people, there are some things that went out of May. There are some things that went into May. The activity level of movement around makes some of the comparisons difficult to do. But there are events that moved from May to April, there’s stuff that moved from June to May.

Operator

Your next question comes from Karru Martinson - Deutsche Bank.

Karru Martinson - Deutsche Bank

In terms of the competitive environment, you mentioned that hopefully we’ll see some normalization in promotions. Do you feel that as others have been a bit more aggressive that you’ve perhaps lost some share here with that more aspirational customer?

Burton M. Tansky

Well, we don’t have a good measurement of that issue, and I don’t know the answer. But we’re not getting into a gun slinging, gun battle to find out who can be the most promotional to hang on to a segment of the market. We believe that we have not lost any ground with that customer. We believe that that customer probably shops around more than our core customer does.

But we think we’ve provided for her a great deal of ingredients that go beyond pricing, and I think she appreciates that. And that’s good service, a beautiful store, good merchandise selection, well edited, and our identifying the important categories and hot items and being in stock.

So, to me, I don’t think we lose share of market, this battle on price is just not our game, and although as you heard earlier, we got into more promotional activity than we like because of inventory levels. But we will continue to maintain reaching out and working with our customers on the basis that we always have.

Karru Martinson - Deutsche Bank

If we were to compare this current downturn in the overall markets into the historical record, would this fit more do you feel with the ‘98, the Asian crisis, back to ‘91 or was this more of a 2000 and how do you see this playing out?

Burton M. Tansky

Well, it’s hard to say. First of all, the last one is even closer in, the 9/11 situation which was sudden and was a sudden hit. We responded very, very quickly and did exactly what we’re doing now and got ourselves in line, and although we had a slight decline in the year, in that following year, we were still very profitable as we are now. I can’t comment on how it was in ‘92, because I just don’t remember, I was at Bergdorf at the time.

But my assumption is that most of these downturns take on a similar characteristic and where the retailer is confronted with declining sales and has to make moves to try and capture as much top line business as they can, and to try to preserve as much gross margin as they can.

So, I think that we’re doing all that we believe is necessary in order to maintain profitability and to ensure that our customers will be cared for and taken care of in our stores. And we’re doing just that. We have plenty of sales help in the stores. Our training programs continue. Our working with our sales associates continue, so that they are knowledgeable. And we are providing our customers with the merchandise that we believe that they’re going to want, downturn or no downturn.

Operator

Your next question comes from [Howard Wireman] - Evergreen Investments.

[Howard Wireman] - Evergreen Investments

You talked about the softness in revenues coming from the aspirational customer. Is there a significant amount of revenue coming from let’s call it the international aspirational customer, so that as the dollar regains ground against the Euro and the yen, that this international customer falls off?

Burton M. Tansky

The answer is we believe we’re getting a good play from the international customer in New York at Bergdorf Goodman. We have in fact more than a good sense, we have some good evidence that the international, especially the upscale international customer is coming to Bergdorf’s to shop. We’re probably getting some of it in a couple of other of our Neiman stores, maybe Las Vegas, maybe possibly some in Beverly Hills and California, maybe San Francisco.

I don’t know what’s going to happen when the dollar exchange rate changes. First of all, I don’t know when it will change. Maybe you do. If you do, you should tell us. Because everybody now is predicting the dollar is going to get stronger and maybe it will. But we don’t know what the timing is. So we have to play that one out and see how it develops.

But right now and I think through the summer months there’s going to be a great deal of travel by our European and British customers, coming to the U.S. to shop and I think that especially at Bergdorf’s because they seem to settle in New York, and don’t necessarily travel throughout the country. I think we’ll be the beneficiary of that travel.

[Howard Wireman] - Evergreen Investments

Obviously you don’t know when the exchange rate will revert, but when it does, would that have a significant impact?

James E. Skinner

The fact is, is that ultimately how much it does, it’s just like we talked about inflation of our products. So if it goes it does. But less inflation of our products, which will be nice. Probably we’re getting, if you demograph to look at who comes to our store, especially the New York one, you’re going to be the upper demographics of the foreign travelers because they’re going to Bergdorf, which tends to be higher demographics than you achieve in and see at Neiman.

So will there be somebody. I bet. Yes, probably what you think, probably. Any way to measure those, probably not.

And so you have counter influences. You probably have pricing that you would probably like to see a little less inflation in the pricing side. Hopefully that also means the economy is doing a little better so hopefully you’ll get some pick up from there, offset by travel, and some of those you [inaudible] can see. It looks pretty concentrated on where it’s coming from. New York is definitely the place that you compete with.

Operator

Your next question comes from Reid Kim - Merrill Lynch.

Reid Kim - Merrill Lynch

I just wanted to follow-up on the earlier discussion about the international studies you’ve done and we had found an article, The Economic Times of India that was talking about a possible JV or something with Reliance Retail. Is there anything to comment on there?

Burton M. Tansky

That was absolutely untrue. We don’t know how it got in the paper. We had no conversations with anybody. We’ve never been to India. Obviously, they have to fill space. Obviously, I have no idea. We found out about it just as you did. Somebody read it. We didn’t even see that, but somebody contacted us and said, it’s great, you’re going to India.

Reid Kim - Merrill Lynch

And then just the other question was on the credit card program, is that working to your satisfaction now and how are approval rates trending on a year-over-year basis?

James E. Skinner

The approval rates are very high in our portfolio. Yes, I think that things are working good. I think we’ve worked out our dispute with HSBC. I wouldn’t say both sides. But I give really good marks to both sides operationally, all through the contractual dispute, which is what we’re dealing with.

The operational side has worked great together, making great progress on the operational side, despite us working out some of the disputes. I’m sure obviously any credit portfolios doesn’t look as good as it did a year ago. Obviously that’s primarily HSBC’s risk, not ours. But I think the approval rates are always going to be very high in our portfolio.

Operator

Your last question comes from Carla Casella – JP Morgan.

Carla Casella – JP Morgan

Could you just talk a little bit about the competitive environment, do you see any new locations from Barney’s or Sachs affecting any of your existing locations?

Burton M. Tansky

Not at all.

Carla Casella – JP Morgan

We haven’t heard anything from Barney’s lately in terms of the expansion.

Burton M. Tansky

I can’t comment it.

Carla Casella – JP Morgan

On the inventory levels, they’re up year-over-year. You mentioned that aside from vendor holiday shipping timing that they should be back down to normal by year-end. Is that something that’s going to take through July to work?

James E. Skinner

I think there are two things. One is I’ve mentioned you’ve got, and it’s not a huge number. But some of the basic styles where the right thing is you sell through them. So there will be, if you put it into price, if we look at the full price. There are probably three categories of inventory, if we looked at the end of the year. The seasonal goods from this year will be through it. Our sales cycle is going to sales goes through July.

So you just work through those between now through July. Our biggest sales are starting and will continue into July. So those you’d essentially get done with. You have the basic styles I mentioned which you continue to hold and sell for full price. Which will probably take several more months but that by far you don’t want to mark those things down that’s something that you re-buy.

Then the third one is this fall goods that may come in early. And so I think we should be in great shape. We will be. We are very disciplined. We will be in good shape on the seasonal fashion merchandise. We’ll continue to work through the basic and then as far as vendor shipments, they may or may not do it. I don’t know.

That’s just one of those that we see when things slow down and tend to ship earlier and the windows are very, very large. So if they had more capacity, and if they’re a little worried, they want to ship it to us, make sure nobody cancels so they’ll get it to us quicker. And so that’s just anticipating what they might do.

Carla Casella – JP Morgan

On the promotional front, would you say you’re being more reactive or proactive, is it competition out there being aggressive with promotions and you’re therefore following or are you out there leading the pack in terms of the promotional activity?

Burton M. Tansky

We don’t lead the pack on promotional. That is not our thing. We don’t lead it. We’re in the promotional mode out of necessity, as you have heard us say several times today. We do not lead. We do not lead. And we take pride in not being a leader in this area.

Carla Casella – JP Morgan

Are you pleased with the traffic you’re getting out of the promotions or is there any way to track now versus years past, are people just not shopping, are they just waiting and looking for the deal?

Burton M. Tansky

No, I’ll tell you something. We don’t track traffic coming through the doors on promotional events. We can see that what the sales results are and we get a lift and we get a considerable lift in business in the promotional activity, which helps us on the inventory side. But, as I said earlier, that is not our thing.

It really isn’t our core customer’s thing either because, they’re regular priced shoppers and always have been full priced shoppers. In fact, I will tell you something interesting, no one asked about it but new fall deliveries, which are just starting to come in, in some of our stores, including Bergdorf’s are already selling at a very, very, very good pace. We’re very, very pleased with early selling.

Is that an indicator for fall and how business will be, absolutely not. It’s just an indicator that our customers who can certainly afford whatever they wish because some of the lack of spending may be psychological are buying into the new early fall deliveries.

Operator

There are no further questions at this time.

Stacie Shirley

And thank you everyone for participating in our call today. You may access the replay of this call at 888-203-1112 through June 30. The passcode is 5567104. And thank you and have a good day.

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