Maven: Retail Rethink

Shed complacent thoughts about Wal-Mart and Gap.
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Columnists who do come clean with their mistakes usually bury the corrections at the bottom of their column.

But since The Business Press Maven makes so few, it is important enough to put up top, especially when the mistake is so splendidly dumb that it is entertaining and lead-worthy in its own right.

When referring to Internet telephony in

Monday's discussion of

Comcast's

(CMCSA) - Get Report

success, I used the phrase "Internet telepathy." Countless readers asked me if this was a typo or a typically lame attempt at a humorous wordplay. Unfortunately, this wasn't meant as a joke -- it just came out that way.

With that bit of embarrassment out of the way, let The Business Press Maven get on to the important business of catching other journalists in errors and misperceptions so that you, the investor, don't get misled.

Drudge Report

greeted

Wal-Mart's

(WMT) - Get Report

earnings Tuesday with a banner headline, accompanied by a photographic backdrop of storm clouds. And this morning's

New York Times

calls

Wal-Mart "a bellwether for the industry" in the lead sentence of its report. Where to start?

Well, maybe I'll start with that prominently mentioned notion that Wal-Mart is a bellwether. Let's kick this thought in the rump as quick as we can, because it's akin to accepting as an article of faith that as

General Motors

(GM) - Get Report

goes, so goes America.

In other words, it's something that may have been true in the past, but, dudes, this ain't the past.

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In fact, one need look no further than

Target

(TGT) - Get Report

, an equal to Wal-Mart in the eyes of many consumers, to see good results.

And if any larger truth is to be gleaned from the recent earnings season as far as retailers are concerned, it is that there is absolutely, positively no consistency. In other words: no single bellwether.

From a larger perspective, too, as The Business Press Maven has noted with uncanny foresight, Wal-Mart seems to have saturated much of rural America and is having its struggles expanding internationally.

You can take or leave its expressed excuse this quarter about the remodeled stores and it is, in the end, one of the best retail operations ever.

But with such challenges to any future growth, saying that as Wal-Mart goes, so goes the retail nation is a one-way ticket to financial Palookaville. Living in the present, an investor must realize that Wal-Mart might struggle to grow.

Before we get off the subject of

The New York Times

and back onto the subject of botched thinking about retail, let me dole out some praise for an important mention in the paper's

story

about Tuesday's snazzy producer price inflation numbers.

As you know, The Business Press Maven has turned

more bullish of late, what with the investing public finally giving up its delusional stance on the

Fed

.

But some caution is still in order on inflation and the

Times

pegs it right, touching specifically on the distortion that much lower automobile prices (particularly for big vehicles) played in the PPI data and how there seems to be plenty of evidence of inflation in the manufacturing pipeline (in things like plywood, sugar and auto parts).

I love these thorough breakdowns, too, just for entertainment value. Shellfish, it should be noted, fell 9.1% -- more than processed turkey.

Now back to the important business of debunking complacent thoughts about the retail industry.

A

summary

came across the wire from

Reuters

last night about the strength in teen retailers, from

American Eagle Outfitters

(AEOS)

to

Abercrombie & Fitch

(ANF) - Get Report

.

Their results, which both came in above expectations, were credited to a maniacal focus on jeans on American Eagle's part and a good call on groovy surfer fashions and price cuts in the Hollister line of stores that Abercrombie owns.

Nevermind that a ridiculous company quote on those price cuts ran without challenge. "'We adjusted the Hollister prices in a few categories, to be just a little more competitive,'

Abercrombie CEO Mike Jeffries told analysts, 'But it wasn't really to drive traffic, but to position the brand against a major competitor.'"

Uh, dude, you're killing me with the fancy-pants jargon.

Are you telling me that you cut prices to theoretically position your brand against this major competitor? You weren't trying to drive traffic into your stores in the form of feet that would otherwise walk into that major competitor?

You have a friend in The Business Press Maven, Mr. Jeffries, so you can admit the truth. Call me.

Nonsense like that leaves me a bit blue in the gills, but the major point missed by most of the business media here is that many teen retailers are taking advantage of the weakness in

Gap

(GPS) - Get Report

, whose stores look so drab you couldn't pay a teen to go.

Forget a maniacal focus on jeans. Forget price cuts not meant to attract customer traffic. When you think of retailers these days, mind the Gap factor.

As far as the tumbling housing market goes, check out this

interesting list

from

MarketWatch

.

It breaks down the 10 communities that have the greatest number of adjustable rate mortgages -- in other words, the 10 geographical areas that may be most vulnerable to a housing crash.

And since I started this column making fun of myself, let me end with the considerably more satisfying practice of making fun of others.

A not-to-be-missed

report

by

Reuters

speaks of a crash charm school, $1,600 for three days, that helps inept men learn how to chat up women.

This is slightly reminiscent of a

recent Freakonomics entry

on an

eBay

(EBAY) - Get Report

auction of a man offering a 30-day email friendship.

Anyhow, in addition to telepathy about finance, The Business Press Maven has it in the field of love. Save that $1,600 and invest it in teen retailers that are taking advantage of Gap's demise. With the ladies, just have a good sense of humor.

A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children.