2 Retail Bargains to Run All Summer

06/15/2011 10:18 am EST

Focus: MARKETS

Igor Greenwald

Chief Investment Strategist, MLP Profits

The struggling home-furnishings industry is home to two uncommonly successful chains still overseen by their founders, writes MoneyShow.com senior editor Igor Greenwald.

It turns out the consumer isn’t dead—he was only face down on the couch mining the cushions for change.

US retail sales slipped 0.2% in May, as economic malaise and Japan quake disruptions clipped auto sales 2.9%. But the core retail trade—excluding auto sales and gasoline—proved surprisingly resilient, creeping up 0.2% from April, and rising more than 6% year-over-year.

And that was not the only bit of good news for the recently slumping retail sector Tuesday. Longtime underperformer Best Buy (BBY) topped profit estimates, thanks to rising tablet sales and share buybacks, and the CEO said on the conference call he felt “good” about sales trends over the last two weeks.

Best Buy’s beleaguered stock bounced 4%, but was overshadowed by another would-be Cinderella.

JCPenney’s (JCP) lackluster sales and frumpy brand had left its stock down 24% since May 4, amid the general disillusionment with retailers. But the stock recouped about half of that loss in one fell swoop, after a kindly wizard came along in the guise of Ron Johnson, the guy who turned Apple (AAPL) stores into places of worship.

Johnson’s hiring as the next Penneys CEO increased the company’s market cap by $1.1 billion in a day. Who would have thought poor, tired JCPenney was capable of that, just for starters?

We’re entering a season of traditional strength for retail stocks, lasting roughly from Independence Day to Black Friday. There are no guarantees that the broader market will be able to string together consecutive gains, much less an extended rally. But it’s certainly not overbought. So this could be a good time to shop for some other likely winners in the space.

I have two to recommend, and both happen to offer home furnishings. Both are highly successful companies mentioned three weeks ago in an Investor’s Business Daily story about improving home-goods sales.

But to understand just how successful they’ve been, let’s put recent gains by the home-furnishings sector into a longer-term context.

In April, home-furnishings stores nationwide rang up $3.1 billion in sales, out of the $347.8 billion US total, according to the Department of Commerce. That means home-furnishings receipts haven’t increased in 11 years, while total retail sales rose 45% over the same span.

Over the same 11-year span, sales at Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) have risen from $2.4 billion to $8.8 billion, sending rival Linens n’ Things into liquidation in the process. The company is still co-chaired by the founders who started it in 1971, and run by a CEO who’s in his 15th year on the job.

Back in 2004, an analyst told BusinessWeek that the chain’s “incredible run” was near an end, as saturation loomed. It had 569 stores then. Now the flagship chain is at 984, and aiming for 1,300 eventually.

Comparable sales in the last quarter were up 8.5%, on top of an 11.6% increase the prior year. Margins rose too, boosting net earnings 30%.

The company, which has no debt, sits on $1.8 billion in cash. It plans to buy back $2 billion of stock, representing 15% of the current market cap, over the next two years.

Buyout rumors pop up from time to time, because at less than eight times trailing cash flow and 15 times the current year’s earnings for the dominant player in its niche, it’s not hard to see a bid at a nice premium.

Management is famously conservative and low-key—and if the optimism it expressed in April has been tested since, the stock has been too, and yet shares sit just 5% off April’s peak. The company reports again in a week, and I don’t think it will disappoint.

Shares of Aaron’s (AAN), a chain that leases furniture, appliances, and consumer electronics, have been on an even bigger tear, doubling since the end of last August. The founder of the company—56 years ago—still serves as chairman of the board, with his son as CEO.

The stock fetches 14 times the current year’s estimated earnings, not bad considering earnings are growing more than 20%. But don’t take my word for it; the stock is held by top mutual-fund managers.

The top holder, the T. Rowe Price Small-Cap Value Fund (PRSVX), has returned 9.9% annually over the past decade under its current manager, outperforming its category by more than three percentage points a year, according to Morningstar. Aaron’s was its fourth-largest share holding as of March 31.

Next on the list is the Allianz NFJ Small Cap Value Institutional (PSVIX), a five-star fund that has returned 11.5% annually over the past ten years. And the next largest stake belongs to the Columbia Acorn Fund (ACRNX), which is more of a growth shop and has returned 9% annually for a decade.

Aaron’s is leasing expensive items at a juicy markup to customers—who are getting by without other credit, in many cases. Like Bed Bath & Beyond, it is a very strong player in a struggling industry, one poised to cash in once the housing market starts to recover.

That could take a while, of course. But as millions of households move into rentals in the near term, and eventually repopulate the millions of homes emptied by foreclosure, they’re going to need new sheets, towels, and furniture.

I think we know where they’ll be getting those.

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