As renewed interest swirls around the Nordstrom family’s effort to take the retailer private, the Seattle-based company reported record sales but lower-than-expected earnings for its fiscal fourth quarter.
For years, Nordstrom has been investing in a digital shopping experience to stand beside its luxe retail stores.
This year, says the storied Seattle retailer, those investments will begin to pay off as it brings together the digital and physical sides of its business in several new ways, beginning with its largest market, Los Angeles.
To underscore that transformation, the company said it will do away with separate sales reports for its physical and online sales channels, instead simply reporting two segments: its full-price and off-price brands.
Nordstrom executives told analysts during its quarterly earnings conference call Thursday that 2018 would mark a financial “turning point” as well. In the latest quarter, the Seattle-based company reported record sales but lower-than-expected earnings.
The company has watched its profit margins thin during the last six years — down to 6 percent of sales before interest and taxes in 2017 — as it made investments in new technologies, acquisitions, an expansion to Canada, and its forthcoming store in Manhattan.
All this comes as the Nordstrom family is said to be renewing its effort to buy the 69 percent of the company it does not own. The privatization effort was not discussed on the call, but bankers and private equity firms considering whether to finance a going-private transaction are no doubt watching Nordstrom’s financial results and forecasts closely.
Sales for the three-month period ended Feb. 3 reached $4.7 billion, helped by an extra week of selling in the quarter, up 8.9 percent from $4.32 billion in the year-earlier period.
Earnings of $151 million, or 89 cents per diluted share, were reduced by a charge related to income-tax changes and a one-time investment in an employee profit-sharing plan, also related in part to tax changes. (Nordstrom pays an effective income-tax rate, including state and local taxes, of 27.5 percent, down from 39 percent due to recent tax reforms, said chief financial officer Anne Bramman.)
These items reduced earnings per share by 31 cents. Even absent the charges, earnings would have come in below analysts’ consensus forecast of $1.24 per share.
For 2018, Nordstrom expects to grow net sales to a range of $15.2 billion to $15.4 billion, which would be up 1.7 percent from 2017 at the high end.
Bramman told analysts the company believes it can make a turn toward greater profit margins this year because its sales have been growing steadily over the last several quarters, and the company’s investments in areas such as data, analytics, technology infrastructure and fulfillment centers are starting to pay off.
Having both digital and physical assets in a market enhances the economics of serving customers, and Nordstrom makes more than double the profit per customer in its markets with a physical store, Bramman said.
Nordstrom’s largest market, Los Angeles, will be a test bed for its vision of a more fully integrated digital and physical business model.
In the L.A. area, Nordstrom has 16 full-line stores, 27 Nordstrom rack stores, fulfillment and distribution centers, a Trunk Club location, some 4 million online customers, and its experimental Nordstrom Local neighborhood store.
The company intends to learn from Los Angeles and begin spreading the strategy to other markets in 2019 and 2020, said co-president Erik Nordstrom.
As it works to unify the digital and physical sides of its business, Nordstrom will report less detail, such as comparable sales, about the performance of each side individually.
Analysts and investors closely watch the percentage growth of comparable or same-store sales to understand whether a retailer is generating more business at its existing fleet of outlets, or merely growing by adding new storefronts.
Comparable sales at Nordstrom’s full-line U.S. stores and its off-price Nordstrom Rack stores were down 1.7 percent and 0.9 percent, respectively, during the quarter, continuing the mostly downward trend seen at many retailers buffeted by changing shopping habits and demographic trends.
Meanwhile, comparable sales at its online properties have grown, often by double-digit percentages — they were up 12.4 percent at Nordstrom.com and 23.7 percent at Nordstromrack.com/HauteLook — albeit from a smaller base.
Digital sales accounted for 26 percent of Nordstrom’s record $15.1 billion in net sales in 2017, compared with 8 percent in 2010.
The change to reporting by full-price and off-price brands will give investors and analysts less insight into the performance of online and brick-and-mortar stores separately.
But, said James Nordstrom Jr., president of stores, it better reflects how the company views itself.
Nordstrom is less focused on old metrics such as sales per square foot or comparable sales at its full-line stores.
Now, he said, the focus is “how we can gain market share in every market we compete in. That means continuing to break down barriers between the digital experience and the store experience.”