Seeking Alpha
We cover over 5K calls/quarter
Profile| Send Message|
( followers)  

The Bon-Ton Stores, Inc. (NASDAQ:BONT)

Goldman Sachs Nineteenth Global Retailing Conference Transcript

September 5, 2012 9:35 AM ET

Executives

Brendan Hoffman - President and CEO

Keith Plowman - EVP and CFO

Mary Kerr - VP, Public and IR

Analysts

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Karen Eltrich - Goldman Sachs

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

All right, I think we are about ready to get started with our next presentation. Bon-Ton should be on everybody's radar screen as their regional department store being revitalized, with about 270 stores in 23 states, primarily in the Northeast and Midwest, it's got a tremendous agent of change, new management. While he doesn't look that old, Brendan has been around the block a few times, at Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus, back in Lord & Taylor and now President and CEO of Bon-Ton.

Brendan along with his CFO, Keith Plowman and --

Karen Eltrich - Goldman Sachs

Mary Kerr.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Mary, sorry – are going to share their exciting plans for Bon-Ton.

Brendan Hoffman

Thank you, Adrianne. And we're really pleased to be here today and I already have had the chance to meet with some of you and look forward to meeting with more of you over the course of the day.

So I just thought I'd take a few minutes just to kind of update you, on what I've seen, I've been in the company now for exactly seven months and really spent that time trying to get around to see as many stores as possible, trying to understand the business, trying to learn the language because Bon-Ton, like all retailers, kind of have their own unique language.

And really I spent the last month or so trying to figure out what the strategy should be to map some goals and vision. So internally the team knew what we were marching towards and externally we could present that as well. And so I thought I'd just take a few minutes to share with you some of what was posted on our website I think earlier this morning.

First thing was what's our vision, what do we want to be? And for us, it's to be the dominant, omni-channel retailer in the small to mid-size communities we serve, offering fashion merchandise for the family and home at compelling prices.

Goals, how will we know when we get there? For us right now, it's a $3 billion plus in revenues and a 10% EBITDA margin. That would show great improvement from where we are today, particularly on the bottom line margin, but we think it's an achievable goal as we turn ourselves around.

And then kind of six categories in terms of how – where will the growth come from? I think the first thing is embrace our base. One thing I commented on during our most recent conference call was we tried to get too young too quickly and we paid the price for that. The previous team has set a goal to reach out to a younger customer, I think that's the right goal to have, I think that's a natural evolution, but it was done far too quickly.

We didn't try to get younger by a couple years, we tried to get younger by a couple of decades and we paid the price for that. So we need to evolve towards the younger customer but not at the expense of our mature traditional customer. And our inventories went from being about 70% traditional and 30% updated to last season they were a 50-50 split. And our existing customer was disappointed because we had eliminated or downsized many of her favorite brands and we couldn't get that younger customer in quickly enough.

We need to do a better job speaking to her in her language not ours. Again I mentioned the Bon-Ton language we used. We have events that we – that mean something to us but not to the outside world. Capacity days was one of our biggest events of the season, yet I still don't know what a capacity day is and neither does the customer, particularly as we try and reach out to new customers that might be [different] franchise from other retailers.

We need to communicate with all of our customers. We were only communicating to about 25% of our active database. I think this is tremendously low-hanging fruit for us. Most retailers are out there buying other list to market to. We have our own internal list that we're only touching the surface on.

We obviously need to gain market share in order to reach these goals and for me capitalizing on the under $10 million doors is a big opportunity for us. These are markets where there is no Macy's. It's us and Kohl's and Penney's. And they don't have access to many of the same brands that we have access to where we're often the only place within 50 miles you can buy Estee Lauder, buy Nine West and buy Ralph Lauren. And I think we need to do a better job using that as an advantage to get people on the doors.

We need to clean up our message. We are going to embrace coupons. I learned at Lord & Taylor that customer response to the coupon is better than any other promotional deal. It really frames the discount for them and I think it's something we kind of were half using before. We're very clear now about our use of the coupons and how that's going to drive our overarching store events and also allow us to have longer, stronger events. We were getting too choppy with our stopping and starting different events as we constantly changed the message.

And we'll tailor our message based on the channel she's shopping. So as we get younger and evolve towards the customer we need to use new media in order to do that, so that our existing customer can still shop and be touched through prints. And while we were evolving or more than evolving to a younger customer, we didn't change the manner by which we reach her very well. We need to pick some categories that we truly believe in, some hero categories, to me ladies shoes is the single best destination a department store has right now.

Yeah, when you walk in to most of our stores you wouldn't – that wouldn't be readily apparent to you. We need to make sure that the categories that can be the biggest drivers for us like shoes, like cosmetics, like ready-to-wear, the customer doesn't need to be told that when they walk in the store, it's evident. And that's something we are doing not just in our renovated stores but trying to do in all of our stores through muscle moves and just using our own existing resources.

I talked about national brands and our smaller doors and larger doors like Chicago. We need to be more competitive. So I've been very pleased with the support I have gotten from the market in getting additional doors for resources like Michael Kors and Coach. In fact, both of them are ready to come online with us over the next few months. So in the markets where there is heavier competition, we need to make sure we are fighting a fair fight.

We need to grow eCommerce. This isn't easy one. I mean I hired a new Chief Marketing Officer and dotcom officer who came with me from Neiman Marcus. This needs to be 10% of our business. Right now, it's only about 3% of our business. This needs to increase. We need to increase our digital spend to reinforce this channel. This should be very easy and help reach get us to our goal.

We need to be more efficient. We've talked about our SG&A cuts. We cut about $40 million on an annual run rate out of our budget over the last few months. This is important not only to weather the storm as we turn this business around but also to provide us more flexibility once we do have this turned around to invest back in parts of the business that could help drive us to our goals.

We need to re-engineer antiquated processes. We have a lot of things that were being done just because they've always been done in that manner, such as the way we took markdowns. We didn't have any sort of liquidation strategy. So on April 15th we wanted the spring – the fall merchandise to be out of the stores, we would basically mark it at a stock at a 199 to get rid of it. Now we're starting to experiment with clearance stores within stores of in-stores to give ourselves a better liquidation method and hopefully drive bottom line profit.

We need to improve inventory management. We need to localize our assortments. We need to really understand as I said earlier our markdown cadence. We need to understand where we are putting our inventory and how we are allocating it in the stores. And that means making tough choices as we grow category shrinking or eliminating other categories in the by door basis.

So these are things that are kind of on our immediate hit list in order to get us to the goal I laid out before. I think the organization has really rallied around this. I think it's become a lot clearer for them the direction and strategy we're going on. We're going to experiment with lots of new things. The path we were on before we knew wasn't one that was getting us to where we needed to go and we think now we're headed on the right direction.

So with that, I am happy to answer any questions.

Question-and-Answer Session

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Great, thanks. Brendan, we're asking everyone the first three same questions of the conference. So the first is related to expectations for the environment on the back half, how does it compare to what you've seen in the second quarter better, worse, the same, and any sort of early thoughts on 2013?

Brendan Hoffman

Well, I mean, I think the environment, that's certainly a tricky question with everything going on in the world and the election. I will say that's the thing that we're most excited about is hopefully getting some real cold weather. 2011, while we hate complaining the weather, I saw the effect of the warm weather on two department stores now and how much it influences not just your cold weather items but just a trip to the store. When she is not coming in because she needs to buy a new pair of cashmere gloves and when she is not in the store she is not buying other things as well.

So I think that there is a built-in opportunity for all of us if we get a normalized winter. And then everything else in terms of the economy and the election and the effect on that, we're trying to play it very close to the best. I think we have plans that allow us to flex up and chase business if we see it start to open up.

We were very pleased with our August being up 2% and ever did I think I would celebrate a 2% comp as much as we did at the Bon-Ton, but for us it was great progress. And so we're certainly – it's giving us some insight and some early read on some selling that we can use towards later in the third quarter and into fourth quarter to chase merchandise. But at the same time I think we're watching the inventories closely enough that if there is some macro effects that cause a downturn, we can react quickly as well.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Great. The second as it relates to capital allocation, how do you prioritize among buybacks, debt pay downs, have you think about that? And when you think about CapEx over the next one to two years, should we be thinking about it up, down or flat?

Brendan Hoffman

I think it would be very consistent to where it's been. I don't think we're capital constrained at all. And what I mean by that is, we have enough capital to get done what needs to get done to get us on the right path. And as we do that and become more successful and throw off more cash flow, it will generate more CapEx for us to spend.

So you always want – would like to have more, but I think we just need to be prudent about the way we spend not only our capital but every expense dollar. And I think the team has had some good measurements in place and we've only further sensitized the organization. And I think now as they understand the direction we're going, it's really helped that process. Keith, I don't know if you have anything you want to add in terms of buybacks and…?

Keith Plowman

Well, I think the one thing to remember is our focus over the past several years, really starting in 2007 through 2011, was more defensive. We're trying to make sure we kept our balance sheet strong. I remind you that we reduced debt levels by over $270 million during a very difficult period. Excess capacity, when you look back in July of 2009 about $174 million, this year being over $380 million.

So really when you look at the comparisons, we've done what we needed to. We've strengthened up the balance sheet. Now we're going to have an appropriate focus between where we're going to invest in the future and opportunities to drive more cash flow as Brendan was mentioning and also be very mindful of the debt levels and reducing the leverage.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Great. And then third, you've touched on it briefly as far as the election, how do you think – how are you thinking about the potential consequences for your consumer on the upcoming election and the pending fiscal cliff?

Brendan Hoffman

Yes. I guess I did touch on that. I mean, we're trying to be play it close to the best and really monitor the sales obviously on an hourly basis, the inventory on a weekly basis, Keith and I getting much more – much closer to it than perhaps we have been in the past. So we can stay nimble. And certainly as business opens up, we want to go after the opportunity, but as other might cause a softening in business, we don't want to be left with too much inventory. So it sounds it's really a day to day and week to week process.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Great. There is a mic out in the audience. If you have a question, please raise your hand. Karen and I will pick up the question.

Unidentified Analyst

You mentioned you have been touring a bunch of the store base, what are you finding in terms of the quality of the assets that you have kind of taken on? And what are the opportunities, what are the risks, how many store closures could you anticipate over the near future?

Brendan Hoffman

I think that we have a very diverse store base and asset mix, probably more than any other place I have been involved in based on how we're kind of cobbled and acquired together and – okay, let me make sure it wasn't me.

So we are always looking at opportunities to strengthen the store base, whether it's opportunities to open stores as we are doing in Pocatello, Idaho next month and what I like about that it is 60,000 square foot store. I am really intrigued by this opportunity to open up these smaller stores. We've found a way to do 60,000 square feet very well and make those very efficient. So hopefully there will be more opportunities like that.

At the same time we're constantly looking at as leases become due where we can either renegotiate, exit and perhaps move buildings if there is a – if the market has moved a few miles away, so that's with the store base as large as we have and as spread out, I mean that's an ever ongoing process.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

One of the more interesting questions, I thought, that came up last night was the notion of how you're communicating to your workforce, what are you doing to raise morale and what are you doing to inspire people to get on board with the mission that you're undertaking?

Brendan Hoffman

Yeah, well, I mean again that's never easy in such large company like this. First thing is, you know I said from the day I got there I was going to visit every store, which previously had not been done, so I'm about half way through that. And I hope that's a lift for them, that's you know, when the CEO comes to town in terms of the associates and being able to shake some hands and talk to them as I walk through. I've spoken to about 600 of our executives last week in Milwaukee, walking them through what we were talking about today in anticipation of this, going to do about – touch about 200 more of our associates tomorrow in York and then broadcast that on our own TV network for all the associates to see.

So, I think it's important for them, as I like to say, know the method behind the madness, even if they don't necessarily agree with it, to at least know what it is. And so I'm quick to share that with them and hope they understand that it will change, even what I said today this will be a living, breathing, document for us to constantly we'll evolve and change as business needs.

And so I think we've done a good job getting the message out there and – but nothing helps more than good business, and again that 2% comp in August was with all the hard work being done, both at the executive team level and the associate level, really made the organization feel good about themselves. We said on our Monday morning meeting last week, it just seems brighter in the room, even though it was raining outside. And so really getting some momentum and having some consistency, I think, will be the best thing we can do for the organization.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Is there a question back there?

Unidentified Analyst

Vendors and fashion resources tend to get nervous in the case of J.C. Penney, when the debts being downgraded and the senior secured debt continues to trade down, do you see your vendors coming to you with more merchandizing monies for holiday, 2012 and more merchandizing monies in more promotional programs for you for spring-summer 2013 and second half of 2013, as you said your business is good and Penney's is comping down 23% in-store and 33% online, as that ultimately a competitive and consumer advantage for you and your Bon-Ton team?

Brendan Hoffman

Well, I just want to be clear, we are – we have one month, we are pleased with – so that's not quite a trend yet, but a good start. The vendor community has been incredibly supportive of me and the company. There was concern when I got here about the long-term debt and once we did the exchange a couple of months ago, they – that alleviated any concern they've had. I have been a visible presence in the market, here in New York, my Chief Merchant's retiring at the end of the year.

And I'm going to assume those responsibilities for a certain amount of time and I'm going to do that on purpose, because I think it's important for the vendors to understand the direction I'm going and taking the company in and to constantly be reinforcing that through my presence in the market, because they are terrific partners for us and they are part of the secret sauce that makes this whole thing work in the department stores game these days.

And so I think the support they've given us has been tremendous and should only increase as we show better and better results. Whether or not that's because of what we're doing whether or not that's because of what the competition's doing, I'm less concerned about that.

Obviously, I said earlier we're going to grow market share, I'm not sure the overall market pie is going to grow, particularly in some of those town we're in. So it certainly needs to come from somewhere, and whether that's the retailer you mentioned or elsewhere, I'm less concerned with that. And more concerned about making sure we do what we need to get done to hit our goals.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Keith, can you maybe discuss the changes that you're seeing with the new credit card provider and what was behind that thought process and why you chose them?

Keith Plowman

Well, and to bring everyone up to speed, we just switched credit card providers, it would have been effective, late July. July 24th, we switched to a new provider, ADS. As Karen, mentioned very excited about this new provider. We were with HSBC and since 2005 and we thought that we had a very good relationship, however they were focused [toward yearend] was on an asset or portfolio that they wanted to sell and I think at that point we didn't have the same objectives.

ADS is a company that is very much looking to grow this business, they are a marketing company, they are a credit card company they are not a bank and some of the initial results that we're seeing and very early as Brendan said about the August sales, same thing here, very early in the process but we are seeing increased approvals, we are seeing approvals at FICO rates that are below what they used to be, which was a very very high level and very difficult to maintain.

We're seeing the credit lines being higher, so in general, what we're seeing is a good experience, a good exposure that customer, we're growing that customer base. I don't know, if everyone remembers we used to be in the high 40s, close to 50% credit penetration, we've now dropped down to the lower 40s. So we see some good things going forward. We feel that we have a very good partner and we look forward to the next 7 years, calling what they call next-gen and the overall business of credit which is very important to Bon-Ton.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Question back there?

Unidentified Analyst

When you look across your store portfolio, how many of them, how many of the stores are not profitable in on an overall basis?

Keith Plowman

As we sit today, based upon having 2011 information, we have about 15 to 20 locations out of our 270 plus that would not be generating cash flow that is accretive or generates profit for the company. Now I do want to caution there a little bit, we do believe organically because some of those are just on the cusp, we do believe, organically we can change some of those locations.

We will also continue to address our portfolio from the standpoint as leases come up, whether we can get concessions or do things to augment what's offered in the location, to change it to a profitable location. But we're not in love with any location, and we'll continue to address our store portfolio as appropriate.

Unidentified Analyst

And when you're looking at –

Karen Eltrich - Goldman Sachs

Brendan – oh, sorry. Sorry, Mitchell.

Unidentified Analyst

Karen, go ahead, it's your conference.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Brendan, last year, you mentioned cold weather but obviously also cotton was a major headwind, as we see those costs alleviate, when will we start to see that float through, and are you going to give that back in pricing or you're going to keep some of that margin?

Brendan Hoffman

Yeah. I mentioned on the conference call last month that Private Brands, which is about 20% of our overall business, or it was about the 70% of our gross margin in this spring season. And it was really two factors; one was clearly the changes we made in the merchandise assortment that I touched on earlier going two young too quickly.

The other piece, along with that was how much price – that we're how much we're going to take our prices based on the rising raw materials cost. So I don't know which one had more in effect, but together it was really an unpleasant situation.

So that's one of the things that makes us – gives us optimism as we move forward, while for fall we weren't able to fully correct the merchandising assortment, nor did the prices come down as low as they have been historically. It's certainly a marked improvement on both ends from where we were this past spring.

And as we circle into 2013, the prices of the raw materials have really come back down to where they were historically, and obviously we'll get our merchandise mix corrected. So we had to raise the prices in order to deal with the cost increases and we absolutely will take the prices back down, and try and drive top-line sales and move units as we get the cost relief.

Unidentified Analyst

When you look at your core customers, who is she today and how do you see her evolving a year or two down the road once you implement some of the new merchandising strategies and input your footprint on the store base?

Brendan Hoffman

You know, I think as I did say I think directionally, you obviously hope to get a little bit younger. But that's not going to change materially who our customer is. I think much like I did in my last conference, when I started at Lord & Taylor, four years ago or so, there was tremendous rhetoric in the, you know, about how specialty stores were going to dominate and you have to own your own brand. And department store were dying breed and I think over the last two years, with very few exceptions, unfortunately, Bon-Ton being one, the department store industry has really fought back quite nicely, in terms of their performance.

And I think that has a lot to do with not pigeonholed into just being only able to service one customer. So even today, even if you say our customers are more mature traditional customer, we still have a broad assortment that will appeal to a younger customer. And can satisfy a younger customer, we just need to enhance that and do a better job marketing to her.

And I think that the Internet and ecommerce gives you a huge advantage that wasn't there 15 years ago to speak to different customers differently. And so our print, our print marketing, probably won't change all that much over the next few years, because we want to still speak to that core customer with the same voice she's used to hearing. But as we get into emails, which we can segment differently, as we get on to Facebooks and blogs and have new media and these younger customers start to talk to each other, I think there's a tremendous opportunity to shift the message and reach out to a younger and different customer. And so it's not so much changing who the core customer is, but really getting credit and expanding the reach that we do have.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Brendan, you talked about the Lord & Taylor experience, I mean, you're not new to turnarounds, you lead an impressive one there. Kind of talk about what's similar and what's different, this time around and what sort of roadmap that can provide us with?

Brendan Hoffman

I think the similarities are that you have a department store, it's been around for a – over a hundred years in both cases. That's gotten a little bit tired and really lost its way in terms of how they're going to become relevant and I know that was something that really drove me at Lord & Taylor. It was in a very competitive market, because of where the Lord & Taylor stores are, how do we become relevant and I think it's the same sort of challenge now with the Bon-Ton, albeit it's going to be different answers.

And I think that a big difference is the recession, the recession that we dealt with. I started at Lord & Taylor in October of '08, so literally just as it hit. There were good thing with that and bad thing with that. Obviously the tough part was just the liquidity and having to worry about that every day. But the recession kind of gave us some cover to make changes.

While the customer wasn't shopping for eight months or a year, we could the change the store around and the get the marketing right, so when she did start to come back, she forgot why she had stopped shopping us in the first plus. And I think that was a big help to us at Lord & Taylor.

Here we don't have the liquidity issues, which is terrific, but we also don't have the recession to hide behind. As I just alluded to a lot of – most department stores have been doing very well over these last few years, the Bon-Ton being exception, so she has chosen to stop shopping with us for something we did or something others did to be more appealing, and so that's certainly something that we're cognizant of, how do we win her back. And think as you – if you start to study our marketing messages, they're clear with much more aggressive calls to action.

I talked about some of the events and the names we used to call them, Black Friday was probably the best thing we do with the Bon-Ton. We have an enormous Black Friday business after Thanksgiving. Clearly, our customer response to Black Friday, so now we have a Black Friday every quarter and we just had one in August, it obviously doesn't do the same amount of volume that the real Black Friday does, but it's a tremendous plus over what we had previously been doing.

So we're looking for things like that we can really motivate the customer to come in and give us a look. We're doing also a promotion with a $50 off a $100 spend. Which is a rich promotion, but it gets them in the door, builds for traffic, it allows them to give us a chance. And when they're there they more than $100 so the discount isn't nearly as severe as it sounds.

And as we're able to preplan these events we're able to get the underlying pricing adjusted so that the out the door price is really very much in line with where we intended to be.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Still following on that Brendan, you shared with us, the couponing, you're not going to be shy about it, you're going to be clear, maybe any sort of quantification, you shared some new things this year. Anything you can share with us year-over-year in terms of the step-up in the number of promotions, the intensity of promotions, we're a quantitative bunch here. So anything, if you kind of put some numbers around?

Brendan Hoffman

Well, I think that we will actually have less promotions will just be longer, so instead of – we fell into a trap of where we would in any given week we might have three different two-day promotions and then take one day off to rest. Now, we're lengthening these promotions where they might be seven or eight days long. So we don't have to – we don't have to re-brand every event, which is very expensive from a advertising standpoint, the stores don't have to reset the stores. So I think that's really helping clean-up our message and getting down the workload.

But yes, I mean we've got to a point at Lord & Taylor, where every day of the year except for a three, we had a coupon going and that was Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving when we were close. So I certainly see the Bon-Ton, to work for Lord & Taylor, the Bon-Ton moving in a similar direction where there is an aggressive use, almost a daily use of a coupon. But in doing that and making that clear both to our customer and more importantly right now to our associates, we can price the goods accordingly.

So I think previously we were always unsure whether or not the merchants were always unsure whether or not the customer was going to use a coupon, so they used the coupon that generally got a deeper – had deeper discount than we intended. If they didn't use the coupon they actually bought it at a higher price than we intended. Now, as we kind of reverse engineer it, okay if there's always going to be say a 20% coupon what should your – there's always POSs before that, what should the POS be and maybe instead of being 30% off like we were last year when the POS it's only 20% off and we actually come out with the higher out-the-door margin and I think a stronger and clear message.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Right, so planned promotions are more profitable, certainly. So when we think about the 10% EBITDA margins that you talked about in terms of the potential, how do we think about the composition between gross margin SG&A productivity, how do you think about the different levers to get there.

Brendan Hoffman

I think we're still figuring that out. And so it can be a 38% gross margin with 2% other income and then a 30% SG&A that gets you there. Obviously, as it's been pointed out to me, it's an aggressive move from where we are. I think 10% that's not best practices. There are players that are far above that into the mid-teens and so for us I think it's a aggressive but achievable goal.

I think it kind of gets you in the conversation for what the best retailers are doing and setting a goal for the company, I – being football season starting today. I don't want to put that – our goal was to have a losing record. When I felt like anything below 10% was kind of saying you're hoping you're going to be under 500 and I think a 10% EBITDA margin kind of gets you into a 9% and 7% record which last year won a championship, most years won't. And I think that at least is a good goal for us to have.

I don't know what the timeframe it's going to be yet, we really need to get this thing going in the right trajectory and then keep and eye we'll better be able to figure out where and when that's going to happen and but I think as you look at each individual component as I just lay – 38% margin and 30% SG&A that seems doable.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

As you think about that for the margin mix, how do you evaluate your mix of private label versus branded?

Brendan Hoffman

Private brand for us is about 20% of our business right now and quite honestly if it ends up 22%, or ends up at 19% I'm not so concerned with that. We're kind of let it seek it's own level. Private brands to me should be used to fill voids, if the market doesn't offer and to go after commodity items that are higher gross margin. Generally, this year being an exception, it's accretive to our margin, it generally runs at a higher gross margin than our brands do.

So I certainly expect that to be the case in the future and I think as long as we – I think we probably got a little too aggressive with trying to push private brands up to a higher penetration of the business and took some risks that were not necessary in our Private brand business. So I think by letting it seek it's own level and again if it's 19% or 22% it's still not going to be the most important thing we do. But it's going to be an important part of our overall mix, that will help get us to a higher margin we've been tracking.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Brendan, 10% seems to be a popular number for you, so a 10% online penetration is another target that you talked about. As that grows from 3% today, how does that impact overall profitability?

Brendan Hoffman

Well, it should certainly help get us to where we need to go. I mean we're doing $100 million online, right now, 10% which again is not where the best companies are at, that gets us to $300 million. That won't happen next year, but I think we'll make great headway next year with some of the initiatives that Luis Fernandez has brought to us.

And there will be a tipping point there, where it [throws off] a tremendous amount of profit, that can be used to fund other areas, or mask some words that we have. But obviously that is part of what gives me confidence to think we can achieve our overall goals.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

But in building the ecommerce how much of the challenge is it that you'll have the multi-name plate and how do you overcome that?

Brendan Hoffman

I think that's probably the place where it's most evident in terms of having these multiple banner names, but we've managed around it. And I think we have so much low-hanging fruit on the ecommerce side that that's an issue we'll deal with the few years down the road, but right now we don't even play with – we don't even have styling and size filters on our website. I mean I don't know how you shop without those today.

We don't use affiliate marketing, we don't use display advertising, our pages aren't set up to optimize natural search, so there's so many, we only spend 3% of our money in digital, where other companies are spending five times that. So I think there's so many levers we can play with to play catch-up, that's the at www.neimanmarcus.com and I was running mad, I felt tremendous pressure to always be first and be on the leading edge. Here we know we're four or five years late to the party and so we can very easily cherry-pick what others are doing, and now with Luis leading the charge, I know we have the right person there to make that happen.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

So the question up in front, so you can yell.

Unidentified Analyst

(Inaudible)

Brendan Hoffman

I mean, yes. So how we're going to get our sales growth, is it going to come from new customers, is it going to come from driving certain product categories et cetera. And I mean the answer is yes, I mean there's a lot of different things we need to do better and certainly focusing in on certain categories is a major goal – objective of mine. One of our top priorities, that's for too long at the Bon-Ton it was like a birth right that every category got a place in the store and that it was never really challenged to, are we going to grow it, are we going to shrink it.

And there was even some handcuffs put on the merchants that if it wasn't in every store, we couldn't advertise it. Well in today's world with the internet, having this kind of faults, the rules means nothing and so we had many categories that were taking up space that either should be shrunk or eliminated in certain stores whether it's men's suits in a certain door, whether it's tabletop in a certain door, where – or even though home is definitely a big destination for us we're still over-spaced in home.

So, rightsizing these categories and I'd like to say tongue firmly in cheek, that if in a $5 million store I could use $6 million with only ladies shoes and cosmetics, I would do it tomorrow. Because that's ultimately what I'm here to do is get more productivity out of any one store and so well that will never happen to that extent understanding, okay, how big this lady shoe – should lady shoes be? How big should cosmetics be? How big should ready-to-wear be, okay, now let's merchandise around that.

Whether it's a new store where we can do it from scratch, where it's a renovated store where we have the opportunity to make these moves, or where it's just, as I said earlier, just doing muscle moves and saying okay, we know shoes, it's in the lousy location and the store because 20 years ago, at least department and we didn't give a good real estate. We can't move it without major capita because the stock room, we have move the stock room with – so let's leave it where it is. But can't we shrink the juniors a little bit, can't we shrink you know, men's a little bit, and triple the space so that when the existing customer or new customer comes in, they look around and say, boy this store believes in shoes, or this store believes in cosmetics.

So I think that's how we'll attract new customers and I think that's how we'll further this spend from our existing customers, but – to your question there's no one answer and I think we have to be playing on all angles with that and start to figure out where we get the – what really moves the needle.

Unidentified Analyst

(Inaudible)

Brendan Hoffman

The technology and systems, yes, I mean I'm very pleased with the IT. I mean – I think every place I've been you're always little bit frustrated and wish you had more but I think, especially considering some of the constraints we've had, our IT is very much on par with what I've seen in my last two stops. Some things better, some things worse, but I think the team's done a great job staying current and – things like the website that we talked about earlier, putting a size and filter capability on the website isn't an IT function, it's more just a site design function, so the capability is there, we just chose not to turn it on.

So I think we're in good shape there, not to say we're won't constantly be looking for ways to move money around to fund IT projects that need to get done, furniture or something I think we can do a bigger job with, we don't even have it online yet, yet we have a very robust furniture business. And the reason was because one system didn't talk to another system. So that's clearly a place, you know furniture could be a $10 million opportunity online, based on the size of our business. And that would allow for quite a bit of capital to be spent there to get a proper ROI, so constantly looking at that.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

So kind of following up on that we kind of touched on this. What are the capabilities at the store level in terms of allowing that customization that localization in terms of merchandising and how are you giving them the autonomy and what tools are you giving them too, to make those decisions?

Brendan Hoffman

Yeah, I mean that's a work in progress. You know, I was pleased that the – already in place it was kind of this business unit within our corporate structure it's to really focus on the localization and get out there and have much more dialogue with the stores, that's an area that I hope to invest in moving forward, I think one of the reasons we've skinny down the SG&A was obviously to provide ourselves some cover right now. But to be able to invest back in areas and the store localization is a piece that I could see growing once we get point in the right direction.

Investing in the associates in these smaller doors not only by differentiating ourselves be the brands we can carry in these kind of unique markets, where there's no Macy's but also putting more associates on the floor and training them better. We are not doing that today necessarily but you know that's the place that I would absolutely like to invest in is to differentiate ourselves against the competition and – giving these stores more autonomy trying to just give them little freedom to say, okay, we told you that there should be red sweaters on that tower but you know, what if you know that in your store green short sleeve shirts are going to sell better in that location, we'll do it. And if it works, terrific; if it doesn't work switch it into something else. I think you know, really understanding that managing 270 stores from Milwaukee, doesn't always give you the full vision into what's going on, there's been hopefully a cultural change so they're adapting to and enjoying.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

And Brendan, maybe talk about our focus is that under $10 million stores where they don't overlap with Macy's but, you know we talked a little bit of that competition, we obviously see the share that J.C. Penney is dropping, when you look at stores that overlap with the Penney, are those an opportunity especially as you're ramping up your coupon efforts and that they are dialing it down. How are you studying those stores and what sort of business potential there – [varies] there?

Brendan Hoffman

I think it's about 85% of our malls have the Macy's in them. So I mean it's generally all of our stores have – I am sorry, have a J.C. Penney's in them. And only 20% of our malls have the Macy's in them. So, J.C. Penney's is where we overlap the most. I think there was certain extent in the first half of the year with some of what they were – the lack of traffic probably hurt us because many of these malls it's us and J.C. Penney's and the malls vacant. And you know, not getting some of that foot traffic I think hurt as we get to the back half of the year and we get our act together and there are some more natural shopping reasons like the holidays.

And we get more aggressive with our call to action messages, I certainly hope that customer takes our hands out of our pocket and we're the natural beneficiary of that spend. So as I said earlier, I really want the team to focus on what we need to do internally, because I think we zigged and zagged way too much over the last few years, reacting to what Kohl's and Penney's were doing and that caused to get off course. So but I think the course that we are charting, will allow us to take advantage of any thing that the competition that's doing that provides opportunity.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Then Brendan you talked that – Keith you mentioned a few stores that are not cash flow positive, maybe some you know as you think about rationalizing the store base, are you talking about opening in Idaho this fall, talk about sort of over time what the growth opportunity is and store growth potential?

Brendan Hoffman

Well, I think it's premature right now to do that. I mean Idaho was a good opportunity that made sense for us from many angles. I think right now our store base in terms of the overall number for the next few years will stay fairly consistent meaning hopefully there will be some opportunities to open up a few stores, but there clearly will be some opportunities to close – or renegotiate certain stores.

But once we get really on the right trajectory here I certainly think that we'll have flexibility to open up new store and again that's why I like this 60,000 square foot box, because it gives you even more flexibility. And so that in terms of aggressively opening stores, that's certainly on our immediate radar, we have other things we need to worry about before we get ahead of ourselves. But I think the opportunity will be there and again, we can be really important to these small towns and to these landlords in these small towns once we really get ourselves right the shift.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

On that note I guess the focus really is more on remodels at this point how is the new remodels handing out for you, what have you learned in the process and are you getting the acceptable return on capital through this?

Brendan Hoffman

I think the remodels have been very mixed results. I'm thrilled with the way they look. I think directionally we did the right thing. We emphasized the right categories so there's nothing that I think was wasted. But I think the results were somewhat muted by the merchandising change that we talked about earlier in many of these doors that we renovated, we – that was where we even accelerated further getting – trying to get young or more updated and really are paying the price for that.

So I expect as we reset the merchandise assortment, we'll see more of the lift from those stores, but I'm really taking a step back in terms of renovations and because my one fear with these renovations are we can't do them quickly enough to really move the topline needle. And so it's terrific if we have a subset of stores that are doing well, but it's getting dwarfed by what's happening in the majority of the stores, that's not going to be the answer, so really as we talked about earlier trying to look at every dollar of capital and every dollar of expense and making sure it's driving the immediate needs of the business.

And certainly you're always going to want to renovate and keep your store base fresh, but that's a – you're chasing your tail on that I mean you're always going to [constant] – as soon as you finish, you start over, so we'll certainly put a plan in place to do that. But right now we've got to get the larger business moving in the right direction.

Adrianne Shapira - Goldman Sachs

Terrific, please join me in thanking Brendan and his team from Bon-Ton.

Copyright policy: All transcripts on this site are the copyright of Seeking Alpha. However, we view them as an important resource for bloggers and journalists, and are excited to contribute to the democratization of financial information on the Internet. (Until now investors have had to pay thousands of dollars in subscription fees for transcripts.) So our reproduction policy is as follows: You may quote up to 400 words of any transcript on the condition that you attribute the transcript to Seeking Alpha and either link to the original transcript or to www.SeekingAlpha.com. All other use is prohibited.

THE INFORMATION CONTAINED HERE IS A TEXTUAL REPRESENTATION OF THE APPLICABLE COMPANY'S CONFERENCE CALL, CONFERENCE PRESENTATION OR OTHER AUDIO PRESENTATION, AND WHILE EFFORTS ARE MADE TO PROVIDE AN ACCURATE TRANSCRIPTION, THERE MAY BE MATERIAL ERRORS, OMISSIONS, OR INACCURACIES IN THE REPORTING OF THE SUBSTANCE OF THE AUDIO PRESENTATIONS. IN NO WAY DOES SEEKING ALPHA ASSUME ANY RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANY INVESTMENT OR OTHER DECISIONS MADE BASED UPON THE INFORMATION PROVIDED ON THIS WEB SITE OR IN ANY TRANSCRIPT. USERS ARE ADVISED TO REVIEW THE APPLICABLE COMPANY'S AUDIO PRESENTATION ITSELF AND THE APPLICABLE COMPANY'S SEC FILINGS BEFORE MAKING ANY INVESTMENT OR OTHER DECISIONS.

If you have any additional questions about our online transcripts, please contact us at: transcripts@seekingalpha.com. Thank you!

Source: The Bon-Ton's CEO Presents at Goldman Sachs Nineteenth Global Retailing Conference (Transcript)
This Transcript
All Transcripts