With energy prices in the clouds and consumer confidence under water, only one retail trend looks like a safe bet for Christmas: rich people. While low-income and middle-class shoppers will be dealing this winter with pump pain and soaring home heating bills, such trifles won't stop the wealthiest Americans from buying jewelry at Tiffany ( TIF) and designer handbags at Coach ( COH). Fine, but that's been true for years. Investors worried about growth might wonder where it's supposed to come from if only the upper crust is spending. A growing contingent of Wall Street is looking across the Pacific Ocean. Last year at this time, Tiffany shareholders cringed at the mere mention of Japan. Once seen as the new frontier for the iconic jeweler, the country was mired in a decade-long recession. Tiffany's Japanese stores hadn't recorded a quarterly same-store sales gain since the second quarter of 2003. With roughly a quarter of the company's total revenue coming from Japan, the results hamstrung the stock, which dropped about 29% in 2004 and made little progress in last year's post-election rally. This year, Tiffany shares have gained traction, up about 19% since New Year's, approaching $38 -- more than 20 times Wall Street's earnings estimates for 2007. They got their biggest pop in early September, when the jeweler reported that it finally eked out a 1% jump in same-store sales in Japan for its second quarter. That reversed a 10% decline in the previous quarter, and investors sensed that the long-awaited Asian turnaround could be at hand. Last November, the company named Michael Christ, the former head of its domestic retail operations, as the head of Tiffany & Co. Japan. Christ has since been focusing on new products, new stores and improved marketing for the division. To be sure, betting that one quarter of positive comps will lead to a sustained improvement is a risky proposition. But given trends in the U.S. retail market and the underlying stability of Tiffany's business, it's a wager that probably has more upside than down.
"Japan has underperformed for the past several years, but business finally appears to be on an upturn," said JMP Securities analyst Kristine Koerber in a recent research note. "We are optimistic long term and believe that the trends may be lumpy over the next several quarters." Koerber, who holds a market perform rating on Tiffany shares with a target price of $38.86, does not own the stock, but her firm has an investment banking relationship with the company. A chief concern about Tiffany in the U.S. has been the dilution of its brand as the company began selling lower-end trinkets to broaden its customer base. Critics say the strategy lost the company market share, as other high-end players expanded their jewelry businesses while discounters like Wal-Mart ( WMT) successfully moved diamond rings. But while cheaper luxury products may be frowned upon in the U.S., the so-called accessible high-end retailers have shown success by venturing downmarket in Japan. "Japan has had its problems economically, but there is still a big population of consumers there that is culturally obsessed with luxury brands and high fashions," said Morningstar analyst Kim Picciola. "That's why it's been a great market for European and American fashion companies looking to grow their business. But the Japanese have shown a desire to enjoy these brands at cheaper prices." A good example of this phenomenon is Coach, the maker and seller of pricy handbags that derives nearly a quarter of its revenue from Japan. Coach has been locked in a bare-knuckled brawl with its European competitor, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, over the thriving Japanese handbag market, and it has gotten results by offering lower price points while maintaining the allure of its brand. Coach remains a distant second in the Japanese handbag race to Louis Vuitton, having overtaken Prada and Gucci, but its products often sell for one-third the price of its counterpart's, and this has resulted in market-share gains.
Coach's Japan sales have tripled over the last three years, and it expects them to double again to more than $739 million over the next four. On Tuesday, the company wowed Wall Street by beating estimates with a 53% jump in first-quarter profits. It earned $100 million, or 26 cents a share, compared with $68 million, or 17 cents a share, in the same quarter last year. Its net sales rose 30% to $448.9 million for the quarter, and its gross profit jumped 32% to $341 million. On a conference call with analysts, the company said it expects its same-store sales to rise 10% in 2006 on steep comparisons to 2005, with a healthy increase in the midsingle digits for its Japan stores. In the latest quarter, its Japan sales rose 24% from a year ago, fueled by new store openings, expansions and midsingle-digit gains in comps. Coach opened four new stores in that market and expanded one, and it expects to open two new Japan stores before the holiday. Also, the company recently agreed to buy out its Japanese partner, Sumitomo, for $300 million. "Coach has really hit the ball out of the park in Japan, and it's still running on all cylinders there," said Shawn Kravetz, president of Esplanade Capital (he does not own shares of Coach, although he does have a stake in Tiffany). At roughly $32.50, Coach trades at a slight premium to Tiffany on a price-to-earnings basis, but it's growing faster. Neither stock seems glaringly cheap, but even if the most reliable trend in retailing finally fails to deliver upside at home this holiday, both of these fashion mavens will always have Japan. The country's major stock index, the Nikkei, has shot up nearly 18% so far in 2005, after making little progress in the last six years with its economy bearing the weight of deflation. "We believe a new regime and market-based reforms should bode well for the long-term Japanese economy," Koerber said. "The luxury goods sector is highly concentrated on the Japanese consumer who, despite the economic downturns, continues to account for more than half the total sales for luxury retailers. Japan continues to be a key market and growth vehicle for luxury goods retailers."