On a sequential basis, the sales to our manufacturing customers stabilized in May 2009 and then started to demonstrate patterns that resemble historical norms. This reversed the negative trend which began in October 2008. This stabilization and improvement was partially offset by continued deteriorization in our non-residential construction business which weakened dramatically in the first eight months of 2009, and then began to also demonstrate patterns that resemble historical norms.
A graph of the sequential sales trends to these two end markets in 2008, 2009, and 2010, starting with a base of '100' in the previous October and ending with the next October, would be as follows:
PATHWAY TO PROFIT AND ITS IMPACT ON OUR BUSINESS:
During April 2007 we disclosed our intention to alter the growth drivers of our business –
For most of the preceding ten years, we used store openings as the primary growth driver of our business (our historical rate was approximately 14% new stores each year). As announced in April 2007, we began to add outside sales personnel into existing stores at a faster rate than historical patterns. We funded this sales force expansion with the occupancy savings generated by opening stores at the rate of 7% to 10% per year (see our disclosure below regarding the temporary slowing of our store growth in 2009 and 2010). Our goal was four-fold: (1) to continue growing our business at a similar rate with the new outside sales investment model, (2) to grow the sales of our average store to $125 thousand per month in the five year period from 2007 to 2012, (3) to enhance the profitability of the overall business by capturing the natural expense leverage that has historically occurred in our existing stores as their sales grow, and (4) to improve the performance of our business due to the more efficient use of working capital (primarily inventory) as our average sales volume per store increases. The economic weakness that dramatically worsened in the fall of 2008 and continued into 2009 caused us to alter the 'pathway to profit' beginning in 2009. These changes centered on two aspects (1) temporarily slowing store openings to a range of 2% to 5% per year, and (2) stopping headcount additions except for store openings and for stores that are growing. (See later discussion on future store openings.)
The 'pathway to profit' initiative, described above, has slowly altered our cost structure over the last several years to increase the portion of our operating costs which are variable versus fixed. This dramatically improved our ability to manage through the current economic environment. As discussed in our third quarter 2009 release, we began to stabilize our store headcount in October 2009. From the third quarter of 2009 to the third quarter of 2010 we grew our store average full-time headcount and also grew our store average full-time equivalent (FTE) headcount; the store FTE grew from 7,087 to 7,450, or 5.1%. (See later discussion on store count and FTE numbers by quarter.)