I'll Reward These Companies for Helping Us Through Sandy

ASBURY PARK, N.J. ( TheStreet) -- I believe in rewarding companies and their stocks for good work -- community building, caring about their customers. It doesn't always work that way. Altruism is a metric that just doesn't turn up in the stock picker toolbox.

But it should. Here at the Jersey Shore, we are noting a handful -- just a handful -- of stores that made a supreme effort to reopen despite a loss of power. Their mission was not to make a profit or to drive up their stock price but to deliver much-needed supplies to those of us imperiled by the storm.

Mind you, any company will fail if it puts all its efforts into saving people. Lose sight of the bottom line and you won't be doing anybody any good -- not investors, not customers, not the beleaguered nor the unaffected. No one.

Likewise, a company that turns its back on its customers during a crisis isn't going to have many customers for long. They're going to suffer, and they should.

Within the constraint of having to turn a profit, though, each company is faced with choices. How do we manage supply lines in the face of a crisis? How many hours do we remain open? How do we mark prices on products that everybody needs?

As investors and customers, we need to be aware of the choices those companies make and reward those that choose wisely, and punish those that don't. For profit's sake, for the sake of our communities and for the sake of our own moral foundations.

Two stores have impressed me over past couple of days: Target ( TGT) and the privately held Wegman's. While most stores around here are still shuttered, both reopened quickly and have organized to try to get supplies into the hands of customers. Both were running critical functions on generators.

In my location (near Asbury Park, N.J.) on Wednesday, we found plenty of staff on hand at Target and prices of many necessary items -- basic food stuff, toilet paper, water -- had been cut, in some cases as much as 50%. All of the perishable goods, in the refrigerators of its supermarket section, were cordoned off with police tape and some items were out of stock, but shopping carts were full and customers on the whole seemed pleased.

Wegmans organized lines for in-demand items and limited the number of packages of batteries and bags of ice customers could buy. The store was mobbed but the mood was polite. (I heard secondhand accounts of people stealing power from the store's generators to charge their cellphones and computers -- if true, a sad testament to selfishness).

Both stores have been notable in my book for years because the employees are always nice. They seem happy to work there and that satisfaction translates into the way customers are treated.

In particular, a gentleman ahead of me in line had trouble paying for about $180 worth of goods. He and the cashier had to remove one item after another until his debit card would work. A floor manager had to help out at one point. The customer was clearly embarrassed.

But far from losing his patience, the young cashier engaged the customer, assuring him that we were going to get through it. One step at a time, no problem; that's what we here for, his attitude seemed to say. We're here to help.

Compare that, for instance, to rival Wal-Mart ( WMT), where employees, customers and displays always seem stressed to the breaking point.

Wegmans attracts a more upscale customer base and plays to that base with lots of gourmet and organic fare at the front of the store and in its aisle-facing displays. But it also offers a balance of lower-priced, standard and Wegmans brand products toward the back.

My biggest gripe about Wegmans is its layout. Coffee can be found in three locations -- the natural-food aisle, the international-foods aisle and the regular coffee aisle -- located about a mile apart in the vast big-box landscape.

But I have to admit, that strategy, while awkward for first-time shoppers, quickly becomes routine and probably helps drive profit by increasing higher-end purchases. If impatience triumphs over pennypinching, you can drop a boatload in a Wegmans in no time flat.

If Wegmans ever goes public, I would keep an eye on it.

Target, similarly, likes to frame itself as slightly upscale, but in fact attracts a general customer base. It has maintained a kind of faux-chic appeal by pushing slightly higher quality merchandise with an attentive staff.

Target has only recently gone whole hog into groceries and does a great job of presentation, pricing and stocking. The rest of the store is general merchandise (and I'll be damned if there weren't people there in the twilight of the storm shopping for furniture, clothes and toys).

Anecdotal evidence aside, the stock price for TGT is near the top of its 52-week range, a peak it has tested twice. On the low side, $58 looks like an established point of possible support.

I would not expect this crisis experience to allow the stock to puncture resistance -- note what I said at the outset of altruism not being a metric. But the holidays are coming. People like me that had a good experience at Target during this season are going back there to do our Christmas shopping.

And as I say, it is a good company all the time, a fact that this crisis only underscores.

If the stock comes down below $58, I would consider it to buy and hold. Its price-to-earnings ratio at that level is still high, around 14, but the quality of the company and its dedication to its customers seems to make it worth it.

TGT Chart TGT data by YCharts

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