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Consumer Cyclical: The Themes Driving Retail's Rebound

Amazon continues to linger as a disruptive threat, but the market is coming around to those retailers offering specialization, convenience, and experience.

  • Consumer cyclical sector valuations remain slightly elevated with a weighted average price/fair value ratio of 1.05, edging higher from last quarter's 1.04. We attribute this to healthy consumer sentiment, low unemployment rates, and stable asset market valuations.
  • We've long held the belief that those physical retailers that offer a combination of specialization, convenience, and experience were best positioned to compete in an Amazon world. While concerns about potential disruption from Amazon linger, we've seen a rebound among several traditional retailers that have embraced these qualities in 2018.
  • We continue to have a favorable view of the specialized auto part retail industry's trajectory. Although growth in miles driven has slowed and fuel prices are rising, we believe that low unemployment and fleet characteristics should propel industry results.
  • Retailers that have shown a willingness to invest in convenience and in-store experience--Williams-Sonoma and Nordstrom come to mind--continue to outperform peers across multiple channels.

The market continues to favor consumer cyclical names, with the group continuing to trade at a weighted average price/fair value of 1.05 (roughly in line with the 1.04 ration the group traded at last quarter). We continue to attribute the bullish market sentiment on a number of factors, including healthy consumer sentiment in the U.S. and many other developed nations, low unemployment rates and wage rate increases that are helping to drive middle class consumption globally, and equity and housing market conditions that have been conducive to wealth effect spending.

However, we believe market valuations also reflect the fact that consumer cyclical companies are starting to reap the benefits of recent omnichannel investments. We've long held the belief that those physical retailers that offer a combination of specialization, convenience, and experience were best positioned to compete in an

We believe the auto parts category is a perfect example of how specialized retailers can stay ahead of Amazon. Retailers like

We continue to have a favorable view of the auto part retail industry's trajectory. Although growth in miles driven has slowed (1% over the past 12 months as of February versus 3% in 2016) and fuel prices are rising, we believe that low unemployment and fleet characteristics should propel industry results. We concur with

Convenience is also becoming as critical as purchase price when consumers are making purchasing decisions. Fifty-eight percent of consumers surveyed by KPMG said that they shopped online because they had the ability to shop 24/7. Another 40% said that it saved time, while 39% said they used the distribution channel to avoid going to shops. With a study by Harris Group showing that 78% of millennials prefer to spend more money on experiences than on material things, it makes sense that they would want to buy the material goods they do need as efficiently as possible because they derive little pleasure from the activity. In fact, 67% of millennials and 56% of Generation X prefer to shop online rather than in-store, according to BigCommerce.

A good example of a retailer that has embraced evolving consumer views on convenience is

Williams-Sonoma relies on its e-commerce business (53% of total 2017 sales) to build the brand cost-effectively and leverage costs, driving operating margin improvement (e-commerce EBIT margins are 22% versus 9% in retail). The firm should enjoy opportunities to build the brand globally while improving the cost structure, thanks to an improving supply chain and distribution network as a result of direct sourcing and furniture delivery operations. Additionally, the firm's expanding global footprint could help improve sourcing and distribution costs longer term, improving operating margins. Global expansion allows access to a wider profile of consumer preferences, lending to better local merchandising and marketing, which could facilitate higher unit sales as supply increasingly matches demand.

Last, customer experience is often thrown out by retail management teams, but we've found that very few retailers have been willing to make the investment or operational changes necessary to build a retail model that stands out from peers. In our opinion,

Notably, Nordstrom has been able to maintain its price points and reputation for superior service and in-store experience despite its aggressive rollout of off-price Nordstrom Rack. Successful balance and differentiation of the two brands has enabled Nordstrom to take advantage of the high-growth off-price retail space without cannibalizing its core business. Nordstrom Rack is an important source of new customers, adding 6 million shoppers in 2017. We believe this channel has been a rich source of younger purchasers. It has also allowed Nordstrom to maintain industry-leading inventory turns (with about 75 days inventory in 2017, versus over 100 at Macy's and Kohl's), which enables higher full-price selling at Nordstrom and higher conversion rates with the increased stream of new products. This inventory capability enhances the brand’s reputation as a cutting-edge source of new trends, in our opinion.

Top Picks

L Brands


Star Rating: 5 Stars

Economic Moat: Wide

Fair Value Uncertainty: Medium

5-Star Price: $42

Although wide-moat L Brands still has work ahead, we believe that improving comparable sales growth throughout fiscal 2017 (from a 9% decline in the first quarter to 2% growth in the fourth quarter) and easing gross margin pressure (from a 280-basis-point decline to 37.1% in the first quarter to a 100-basis-point decline to 42.3% in the fourth quarter) point to a recovery in progress. We continue to believe that L Brands can return to comparable sales growth in fiscal 2018 and that gross margin pressure will ease with the comping of swim and apparel exits and mix challenges.

In our opinion, L Brands has a wide economic moat, with brand strength in a category characterized by high levels of consumer brand loyalty and prioritization of quality and fit over price. In the near term, we see multiple catalysts for an inflection point in sales and margin performance with discontinued categories being comped, bralette penetration stabilizing, Victoria's Secret Beauty improving, and new structured bra introductions. Further, we believe the company has a healthy long-run growth opportunity in China. With recovering comparable sales pointing to intact brand strength, we think the current discount to our $69 fair value estimate is unjustified and view this as an attractive entry point for investment.



Star Rating: 4 Stars

Economic Moat: Narrow

Fair Value Uncertainty: Medium

5-Star Price: $20.30

We have a high degree of confidence in the defensibility of Hanesbrands' competitive position, given advantages that are difficult for competitors to replicate: the efficiency of the firm's large owned and controlled supply chain, core product positioning in a space where brand is more important than price, and economies of scale achieved through a growing portfolio of synergistic brands. We think the company is poised to post significant operating margin growth through recognition of synergies ($85 million in 2018 and 2019), $100 million in net cost savings from Project Booster, and $30 million-$40 million in manufacturing efficiencies.

The company operates 50 manufacturing facilities, mostly in Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean Basin. In 2017, more than 70% of units sold were from own plants or those of dedicated contractors. When Hanesbrands can internalize high-volume styles, we estimate that it saves as much as 15%-20%. Utilizing this manufacturing platform, Hanesbrands has been successful in making acquisitions to drive earnings growth.

Hanesbrands' top line has come under pressure from secular trends to online sales (only 11% of revenue globally was online in 2017, and retailers were hit with bankruptcies and downsizing). However, Hanesbrands is distribution-channel-agnostic, and we think these trends affect only the near term and create an attractive entry point for investors. The transition to e-commerce is proceeding well, with the online revenue growth rate hitting 22% in the fourth quarter of 2017. As online sales increase as a mix of business (we model penetration reaching the midteens percentage of total sales in 2018), we think total company growth will rebound and see 1% organic revenue growth in 2018 (versus a slight decline in 2017) as well as contributions from acquisitions.

Myer Holdings


Star Rating: 4 Stars

Economic Moat: None

Fair Value Uncertainty: High

5-Star Price: AUD 0.40

For investors seeking exposure to the Australian department store sector, no-moat-rated Myer provides the greatest leverage: All of Myer's operating earnings are generated by department stores. However, times are tough for Australian department stores, and this pressure is unlikely to let up soon. We expect Amazon to prove similarly disruptive to incumbent retailers in Australia as in the U.S., compounded by a continued decline in the sector's relevance to consumers as they shift their spending to entertainment, leisure, and specialty shops.

Myer is undeniably in a hard spot, but management is following a clear strategy to cope with the challenges facing the sector. Key strategic targets include a more concentrated physical footprint, greater cost efficiencies, productivity gains, and investment in online capabilities to drive sales and profitability.

Quarter-End Insights

Stock Market Outlook: Some Values to Be Found in Defensive Sectors Healthcare, breakfast, and gassing up the car are always necessary, even during downturns.

Energy: Despite Geopolitical Wildcards, the Reckoning Is Still Coming for U.S. Shale Producers The longer the delay, the worse the supply onslaught becomes.

Real Estate: Strong Fundamentals Persist--As Do Opportunities REITs should have several more years of solid growth in property fundamentals as the economic cycle continues and many sectors have the peak in supply growth behind them.

Utilities: Back to Fair Value With Some Emerging Opportunities Utilities investors have buying opportunities but should pick carefully.

Healthcare: Drug Pricing Concerns Weigh on Valuations, Creating Opportunities Innovation, consolidation, and a mixed regulatory picture for healthcare stocks in the first quarter.

Consumer Defensive: Attractive Opportunities in Competitively Advantaged Stocks Lackluster fundamentals and competitive pressures persist, but fail to warrant the recent retreat in shares.

Industrials: Despite Bullish CEO Talk, Few Values Lackluster fundamentals and competitive pressures persist, but fail to warrant the recent retreat in shares.

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