They Just Don't Get Gap!

Gap's (GPS) February same store sales came out to wild acclaim, but it doesn't take too much acumen to offer a slight caveat. Acumen, though, isn't the media's thing.

Just look at Forbes. Same store sales are, inarguably, a top line number. It measures--and sorry for the Finance 101 here--the total level of sales and has nothing to do with bottom line profitability.

That distinction was lost on Forbes, which ran this head-scratcher of a passage: "Bottom's finally up at Gap. Bottom line, that is. The San Francisco-based retailer's struggles to find its sartorial sweet spot with customers may soon be in the rear view mirror."

Look: Gap's stores have been looking a bit better. But they are also discounting like demons. Discounting obviously pushes top line growth, but at the eventual expense of profitability. Actually, maybe it's not so obvious. After all, Forbes totally confabulated the top and bottom line and Barron's got busy declaring Gap permanently back from the dead, without even mentioning the prospect that steep discounts, which will step even further on profitability, were a factor. To Barron's, the results merely served as evidence that Gap's "key spring styles are resonating with shoppers--a real victory early in the season that many didn't think Gap could pull off."

While the media was wrong to skate by the prospective effects of discounting on profitability, few (outside of Jim Cramer) managed to give a shout out to what Gap has going for it on the profitability side of the ledger: considerably lower cotton costs.

When it comes to business, profitability is all that matters. When it comes to same store sales reports, though, the media seems to forget about profitability altogether. Don't be fooled.

At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.

Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers and a money manager before becoming a journalist who wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column for six years. He also did back-up beat coverage of The New York Knicks for the paper's Sports section for two seasons and covered other professional and collegiate sports. He has contributed frequently to many of the Times' other sections, including National, Metro, Escapes, Style, Real Estate, Arts & Leisure, Travel, Money & Business, Circuits and the Op-Ed Page.

For his "Business Press Maven" column on how business and finance are covered by the media, Fuchs was named best business journalist critic in the nation by the Talking Biz website at The University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Fuchs is a frequent speaker on the business media, in venues ranging from National Public Radio to the annual conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

Fuchs appreciates your feedback; click here to send him an email.

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