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Sears circling the drain? No, says Wall Street

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/25/2017 Charisse Jones and Nathan Bomey

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Sears Holdings said Thursday it would close another 28 Kmart locations as it continues its cost-cutting campaign, again making it the poster child for the precipitous decline of the American department store.

The company also posted declining sales and profits, but the results were better than analysts expected and led to a brief surge in its stock price before closing at $8.55, down 2 cents.

The Kmart closures add to a list of 330 Sears or Kmart locations shuttered or set to be closed later this year as the retailer seeks stability.

The latest batch, as disclosed on a list released by Sears Holdings, stretch from Allentown, Pa., to Bellflower, Calif. 

The company, which will still have more than 1,200 stores after the closures, said in a public filing earlier this year it believes it has at least another 12 months of cash to continue operating. 

Sears is betting on a customer loyalty program called Shop Your Way to help lead a turnaround. In addition to new ways for members to earn points, Sears will analyze the members' past purchases and preferences in order to tailor its suggestions. The company also won investors' favor with a deal announced in July to sell its Kenmore appliance brand on Amazon. 

"We will continue to right-size our store footprint to ensure we are positioned to meet the realities of the changing retail environment,'' Rob Riecker, Sears Holdings' chief financial officer, said in a call with investors.

Sales at Sears and Kmart stores open at least a year, a key metric in the retail industry, tumbled 11.5% for the period, the company said Thursday. S&P Global Market Intelligence analysts had estimated that those sales would decline 7.1%.

With many major retailers shuttering stores as shoppers increasingly browse online, Sears' latest round of closures was not unexpected, analysts said.

     

It "strikes me more as good store hygiene rather than a foreshadowing of another round of mass closures," said Greg Portell, lead partner in the retail practice of A.T. Kearney, a global strategy and management consulting firm. "It is good for a retailer to always be challenging their footprint.'' 

But Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, sees the continuing store closures as more ominous.  

They "signal that Sears is broken and that increasing numbers of people do not want to shop there,'' Saunders says, adding the company needs the money generated by sales of its real estate to stay afloat. "This is much deeper than getting the footprint right or adapting to the modern era of retail. It's surgery to remove dead or dying parts of the organization.''

Pharmacy, grocery, household goods and consumer electronics sales fell sharply at Kmart. Home appliances, apparel, consumer electronics and lawn and garden sales tumbled at Sears. 

Related gallery: 22 retailers closing the most stores (provided by 24/7 Wall St.)

<p>Sears Holdings Corp., owner of Sears and Kmart stores, said Thursday it plans to close 28 more Kmart locations this year, in another sign the once-iconic retailer’s financial condition is deteriorating.</p><p>The announcement about the store closings follows previous announcements from the Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based retailer that it shuttered 180 Sears and Kmart stores this year and will close 150 more locations by the end of the third quarter.</p><p>Sears also reported fiscal second-quarter financial results Thursday that put the company’s difficulties in stark relief. The retailer said overall sales at stores open at least a year - a key retail industry metric - declined 11.5% during the second quarter of 2017, below analyst expectations.</p><p>Sears is dealing with the same challenging retail environment as peers such as Macy’s and J.C. Penney Co. -- falling foot traffic at shopping malls and the migration to e-commerce companies such as Amazon.com.</p><p>Due largely to the success of e-commerce companies, Sears is just one of several major retailers that are closing dozens, and in some cases hundreds of stores. Some of the retailers closing the most stores this year are not downsizing but shuttering their businesses entirely. All but one of the five companies at the top of this list have filed for bankruptcy and announced plans to close all their stores.</p><p>To identify the companies closing the most stores, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed major U.S. retailers that have announced store closings for 2017. All listed store closings are based on company announcements that will either take place entirely, or will begin, in 2017. Total store counts are based on company annual reports, when available, or corporate websites, and are U.S. store closures only, unless otherwise specified.</p> 22 retailers closing the most stores

The company posted a net loss of $251 million for its fiscal second quarter ended July 29, but that was down from a loss of $395 million in the same quarter a year earlier. It also beat S&P's projection of $266 million.

Fewer stores helped lead to revenue dropping 23% to $4.37 billion.

The results were “a little bit heartening, but still left some open areas of worry,’’ Portell says. “The fact that they were able to deliver better than expected earnings while their same store sales declined dramatically was in my mind an indication that their cost (cutting) program seems to be on track.''

Related: These are the Kmart locations that are closing

But, he added, "how long they can sustain double-digit same-store losses while still keeping cost cuts ahead of the trend will be an ongoing area of attention.'' 

In a series of financial maneuvers, Sears said it had gained access to additional borrowing capacity and extended the maturity on certain loans to allow it to stay afloat longer as it continues its restructuring plan.

As recently as 2012, the company had 1,305 Kmart stores and 867 full-line Sears stores in the U.S. But by the end of the latest quarter, Sears said 619 full-line Sears and 610 Kmart locations remained. 

   

Sears reports earnings. © Amy Sancetta, AP Sears reports earnings.

In March, Sears rattled investors when it said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it had "substantial doubt" about its ability to stay in business unless it could borrow more and wring cash from assets.

The notification was required based on a 3-year-old rule change that requires companies to be more transparent about potential risks they face within a year of their reported financial statements. At the time, independent auditor Deloitte said it believed Sears Holdings was still viable.

And analysts said Thursday it's unlikely Sears, though troubled, will run out of money by March, given its vast real estate holdings and the steps it's taking to cut costs.

"Sears has some runway left in terms of its financial position,'' Saunders says.  

Sears CEO Eddie Lampert, who has criticized talk of the company's demise as "harmful'' and premature, said the company is moving toward its goals to restore the strength of its bottom line.    

More: Malls become models of reinvention to cope with closing stores

"We are making progress on the strategic priorities we outlined earlier this year and remain focused on returning our company to profitability,"  Lampert said in a statement. "The comprehensive restructuring of our operations is delivering cost efficiencies helping drive improvements to our operating performance."

Earlier this year, the company sold its signature Craftsman brand for more than $900 million. It says it is on track to meet its goal of cutting $1.25 billion in costs by the end of the year, having already achieved more than $1 billion in savings. And the deal to start selling Kenmore appliances on Amazon could provide additional income as Sears also takes on the tasks of delivering and installing the Kenmore products.

Sears was one of the last major department-store chains to report this earnings season, and the results reaffirmed its difficulties, The retailer is trying to stay relevant in a retail environment upended by fast-fashion and online shopping.

Nordstrom was one of the few bright spots, posting a 3.5% increase in net sales to $3.7 billion. But Macy's, with sales better than analysts expected, still missed profit projections. JCPenney reported a net loss of $62 million, partly due to its closing 127 stores in a single quarter.

As always, the year-end holidays will be critical for the entire retail sector, and for Sears in particular as it tries to rebound from its latest round of disappointing sales. But however Sears fares in the busiest shopping period of the year, one analyst says Sears can still survive the holiday season.

"As much as the company is very poor at retailing, it is very good at financial management to ensure it stays afloat,'' Saunders says. "This holiday season will not likely be the tipping point for the company. That said, the holidays will reveal how much further Sears can fall, especially on the sales front.''  

More: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em: Sears to sell Kenmore brand on Amazon


 

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