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Would you grab a shovel and join me for a moment here, please? The Business Press Maven is knee-deep in a dirt hole, busy burying the most outdated assumption about retail stocks. Investors who still take it as a truism are truly going to lose money, so let's cover it up and stomp on it, just to be certain.
is clearly no longer the bellwether of American retail. Letting the business media frame it as the center of the retail world will skew your thought process and lose you money.
For about a decade now, most overviews of American retail were organized around how Wal-Mart was doing, and why not? It was big and it was growing, so it could serve as a sampler for both large retailers and growing ones. As Wal-Mart went, so went American retail.
But these days, Wal-Mart is no more representative of American retail than The Business Press Maven's patella. It has probably reached capacity in rural America and has been flustered expanding into cities and some international outposts. And it is under constant attack from politicos and media types -- a victim of cheap shots and snap judgments, perhaps, but the reality of it puts Wal-Mart in a
position for an American retailer.
The business media are never good at shaking an old belief. And coverage of the
nice retail results today still seems fixated on Wal-Mart. You want a better understanding of the results? Think of Wal-Mart as an also-ran, relegated to a brief mention somewhere low in an article or toward the end of a television report of retail sales. Wal-Mart lagged, but there is no surprise there. Concentrate on what the others did.
Speaking of retailers, to best understand the prospects of
this morning, which reported excellent same-store sales results, let's flip the many stories about it on their heads. Take
The Wall Street Journal's
little missive on the topic
The first sentence is fine -- a direct reference to the company's claim that eventually it will have 40,000 stores (no, not all on the same block in Manhattan, it'll just feel that way). That number is up 10,000 from the previous target. Not too shabby, though no time frame was given, which is a little bit shabby.
Then comes inversion time. We get a paragraph on some Starbucks-branded music hook-up with
iTunes, which seems worth a mention, but something that falls more under the category of "whatever."
But lower is an essential long-term development. The company said that its new customers have lower incomes than five years ago and include more women, more Hispanics and fewer holders of college degrees. This is big long-term news for the company, and shouldn't be buried like that dated assumption about Wal-Mart.
The knock on Starbucks was that it had a solid customer base among affected elites who could afford to pay $23.79 for a small coffee topped by a spritz of caramel with a chemical aftertaste, but when it came to selling the same to the less wealthy, less educated masses ... well, Howard Schultz, who'd never met his match, just might have.
That the company is making this crossover to less educated, and frankly, less white customers is big news and should be understood as such. What also should have been mentioned, in regard to another company issue, is historical context. As you know, The Business Press Maven always gets his panties in a bunch about how little the business media pay attention to history, and there's an important bit of history here from just two months ago.
Back then, Starbucks raised some eyes with what appeared to be a ridiculous claim about how the
hot weather hurt sales.
The somewhat convoluted-sounding claim went like this: The summer heat caused a demand for cold drinks, which take longer to make, so lines grew -- and customers left. Retailers tend to blame every financial fault on the weather but in retrospect, the point should be made that Starbucks was probably right. Now that we've seen such good results this month, maybe hot weather
cause people to leave long lines for cold drinks. So score a point in Starbucks' favor.
Make that two points -- the first for attracting a wider customer base, something that seemed unlikely, and the second for probably telling it straight over the summer, something even The Business Press Maven thought was unlikely. Howard Schultz, 2. The Business Press Maven, 0.
an interesting study in the issue hitting the stands this morning. To wit: The bigger a pain in the butt that hedge funds are, the higher stock prices are likely to go.
According to the study, when hedge funds are targeting a company to change its ways in a hostile manner, specifically calling for the sale of a unit or new business strategy, the stock of the targeted company performs better than when activist investor hedge funds talk in more polite generalities about greater board independence and the like.
There was also no evidence that bolsters common CEO whining about how that nasty pressure exerted by hedge funds destroys long-term value. I am pro hedge-fund activism ... but of course, I don't have any of those loudmouths yelling at me to write better while I'm trying to type.
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.