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Checking the Retail Channel

We've all heard Wall Street analysts talk about their "channel checks" at various stores when bolstering their investment outlook on retail stocks. One thing they are referring to is visiting a retailer's sales floor, and the observations they take away.

How useful are these observations? The short answer is probably not very.

Anecdotal shopping observations are a poor substitute for analysis of a company's financial statements and of sharp judgments about a management team's credibility. After all, retail companies often run a multitude of store concepts, spreading risk across different trends and demographics. Furthermore, other factors like valuation, mergers and acquisitions, capital structure and real estate can affect a company's stock price, and investors shouldn't be fiddling around with their portfolio without full knowledge of the big picture.

All that said, good investors armed with this knowledge are also observant in their everyday lives and ready to find investment ideas wherever they go. When it comes to the retail sector, shareholders can benefit from shopping in stores where they hold a stake, or where they're considering buying a stake, and experiencing how the business works first hand. If you're headed to the mall this holiday for some gift-shopping, there's no better time to pop in on those stores in your stock portfolio and see what's going on.

On Veterans Day, accompanied a group of students from Seton Hall's Stillman School of Business to the Palisades Center in West Nyack, N.Y., for an exercise in amateur channel checks. The Palisades is a cutting-edge retailing hub located an hour's drive north of New York City, housing practically all the big names in retailing (except Wal-Mart (WMT - Get Report)). It has 270 specialty stores, 14 restaurants, an NHL-size ice skating rink, a 68-foot Ferris wheel, a restored antique carousel, a 21-theater movie complex and a state-of-the-art IMAX Theatre.

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