Notes from Urban Outfitters' Q4 2017 Earnings Call

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

We all had a feeling that Anthropologie's results would be lackluster this quarter and sure enough that hunch was confirmed during parent company Urban Outfitters' quarterly earnings call. Inside, read what the leadership team had to say and what the future might hold...

Let's begin with the financial results:
"Total Company or URBN sales for the fourth quarter increased by 2% to $1.03 billion, this sales increase was driven by $19 million in non-comp sales including the opening of two net new stores in the quarter and sales from the newly acquired Vetri Family Restaurants. 
Retail segment comp sales were flat for the quarter and wholesale sales were down 1%. Please remember that last year the wholesale segment fourth quarter benefited from shipping delays in the third quarter. Additionally, please note that our sales growth during the quarter was negatively impacted by approximately 150 basis points of foreign currency translation. 
Within our retail segment comp, the direct-to-consumer channel continued to outperform stores posting double-digit sales increase, driven by increases in sessions and conversion rate which more than offset a decrease in average order value. Negative comp store sales resulted from decreased transactions and average unit selling price while units per transaction were flat. 
By brand, our retail segment comp rate increased by 2% at Urban Outfitters and 1% at Free People while Anthropologie was down 3%. Our URBN retail segment comp was strongest in November which benefited from the shift of Cyber Monday while December and January posted negative comps. Free People wholesale segment sales were minus 1% for the quarter. This is primarily due to the prior year fourth quarter benefiting from approximately $9 million in carrier orders that were delayed out of fulfillment centers. 
Please note that wholesale delivered 13% sales growth over the second half of the year and we currently believe our growth rate in fiscal 2018 will be approximately 10%. Total URBN gross profit for the quarter was down 2.5% to the prior comparable quarter at $340 million. Gross profit rate declined by 142 basis points to 33%. The decline in gross profit rate was primarily de-leveraged in delivery and logistic expense primarily due to the penetration of the direct-to-consumer channel. Additionally, maintained margin key leveraged due to lower initial markups and higher markdowns at both the Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters brands."
To see Anthropologie's comparable retail down 3% is eye-popping. That's a pretty huge number! Though I'm sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that reads this blog regularly given the sheer amount of discounting Anthro did over the holiday season. Furthermore, they were hurt by poor performance of new collections.

Here is some very interesting information about the store roadmap delivered by CFO Frank Conforti:
"As we enter the first quarter of fiscal year 2018 it may be helpful for you to consider the following. We are planning on opening 19 new stores during the year while closing 7 stores due to lease expiration. Urban Outfitter is planning on open one new store in North America while closing two stores and is planning on opening three new stores in Europe. Anthropologie is planning on opening four new stores including one expanded format store and closing two stores all in North America. 
Free People is planning on opening 10 new stores and closing three stores all also in North America. The food and beverage division will be opening one restaurant adjacent to an expanded format Anthropologie that will be opened later this year. As we have been discussing for some time now we believe we are essentially at our total store count in North America for both Urban Outfitters currently at 199 stores and Anthropologie currently at 210 stores and nearing our North American total for the Free People brand currently at 127 stores. As existing leases come up for renewal, we will review each location for brand appropriateness and with strong financial discipline where the location economics or demographic do not meet our strict criteria we will continue to close those existing stores. We believe North America remains over-stored and we believe we are fortunate to remain disciplined in our store growth throughout the years. 
We are planning our new store growth to come from international extension. We will continue to expand the Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie brands in Europe and have begun to look for our first Free People store location in Europe. We are also exploring partnerships in the Middle East and working through our Asian growth strategy for each of our brands. For the fiscal 2018 first quarter we are planning five new Free People stores in North America and one Free People closing. Additionally, Anthropologie is planning on opening one new expanded format Anthropologie store which will have cafe adjacent to it and one store closing."
Very intriguing insight! Personally I'm delighted that Anthropologie doesn't plan to go above the 210 or so store mark -- the brand is starting to get diluted and we don't want that. I know this may be sad for those of you in no-Anthro zones but the silver lining is where Mr. Conforti said that the company will continue to evaluate where the stores should be -- which means an Anthro location could close and then open near you! I'm still hoping Fort Collins, CO gets an Anthropologie store myself.

I'm not quite sure where the one new large format (Anthropologie & Co) mentioned above is -- I know for sure that the Westport, CT Anthropologie & Co is opening March 31. This is my old stomping grounds and I could not be more excited! The store is in a brilliant location inside a beautiful building. See some photos of the new store taken by my very first job out of college's sister newspaper here. But I also know that there is an Anthropologie & Co finally opening on Dey Street in Lower Manhattan sometime soon too -- they are hiring for it now. Perhaps that won't be til Q2 2018 Fiscal though.

Urban Outfitters CEO Richard Hayne added further comments on the store tallies:
Paul LejuezThanks. Dick I am curious out of the approximately 200 Urban and 200 Anthro stores that you have in the US, how many do you wish were larger versus how many do you wish were more smaller, if you could frame that for us...
Richard HayneOkay, large format within Anthropologie I think when Dave and I talk about it we see the number maybe around the 30 to 50 mark right now. I don't know that we want any that are particularly smaller. There are going to be some Paul that will probably go away at some point over the next five years. Right now we have approximately 8% to 12% of the stores that are up for renewal each year over the next five years, and when we do those renewals we are looking for usually either rent concessions or some capital to do some renovations. 
When we do our pro formas to decide if we are going to re-up or not re-up we are putting in a continual decline in projected sales and as a result of what we believe will be continual decline of traffic and so these store has to pass the hurdle. If they don't I don't think we look at it with any degree of remorse if we have to close the store. So that's how we think about it. On the Urban side, we are still experimenting with the larger format stores. The Herald Square larger format store has been very strong and successful. We need to experiment more with some that are outside what I would call a very a typical case which is main in main in New York City. So that remains to be same. 
So in the future we may lose some regular-sized Anthropologie stores in favor of Anthropologie & Cos. That seems to be the case in Manhattan, where the Soho Anthro closed (RIP) but we're getting a huge Anthropologie & Co about 10 minutes south of there.

With thoughts on stores wrapped, let's move on to the fashion and what the leadership's interpretation of the results say.

From CEO Richard Hayne:
"Let me begin with a fourth quarter overview. I would characterize results during this year's fourth quarter especially the holiday season as both disappointing and highly unusual. Total company comparable sales were flat for the quarter. But within the quarter two distinct periods appeared. Comps were up nicely in the month of November. All three brands enjoyed a fantastic start of the holiday season by driving double-digit comp sales gains on both Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Things were looking very good.
Then came December, store traffic and overall demand in North America at all three brands evaporated for several weeks at the beginning of December. More normal demand returned only as Christmas and Hanukkah drew near. Demand remained normal immediately after the holidays but fell back again once the New Year began. I can't recall having ever seen a quarter with such wild and wide fluctuations. 
We believe these factors may continue to be a drag on sales and merchandise margins through at least the first half of fiscal 2018. Additionally, sales trends decelerated toward the end of the quarter resulting in markdowns that were slightly higher by rate implant. We believe the sale deceleration in the final 30 days of the quarter was caused in part by fewer fresh recedes. January is no longer a clearance month. She wants new fashion and the brand didn't offer her enough of it. One of the Urban brands big wins in the quarter and the year came from its marketing efforts. During the quarter marketing activity on a year-over-year basis drove 23% more sales and generated 56% more incremental margin. 
Digital community and social media are replacing store fronts and traditional advertising as a preferred means by which brands and customers are connecting. I believe the Urban brands use the social media platforms and the customer connections they are building are among the best in the industry. Currently the Urban brand enjoys almost 7 million Instagram followers, a 52% increase versus the prior year and well surpassing most of its peers. 
Now let me turn your attention for the Anthropologie group. The brand's fourth quarter performance in North America was less than December and results were largely a repeat of the previous three quarters. The growth experience in the Home, Beauty, Beholden and Terrain categories and concepts continued to be over shadowed by challenges in the apparel and accessory offerings. As a result total brand comparable sales in the quarter dropped by 3%. During the quarter the expanded Home category continued to enjoy positive momentum. This category posted strong comp sales with improved IMU and lower markdowns on a year-over-year basis. We believe this momentum should continue as the team evolves its aesthetic, broadens the offering and refines its marketing. 
The Beauty category posted double-digit comps in Q4 and the brand team believes there is significant opportunity in FY '18 to build this category out further. Both the Beholden and Terrain concepts also delivered strong double-digit comps and both continue to benefit from inclusion into the Anthropologie group where they can leverage the Anthropologie customer base. 
Terrain product proved to be very popular in the two shop-in-shop open inside the new Anthropologie large format stores in California. Because of this success, additional Terrain shops are planned for future large format Anthropologie stores. In addition, Terrain plans will expand the number of garden center locations it operates independently. 
Customer excitement around all of the expansion categories confirms our belief that the Anthropologie brand resonates deeply with its customers, however, the customers also telling us is no answer in terms, the apparel and accessories are currently off pitch. We believe strongly that with the better product offering both categories would be enjoying the same positive comps as other Anthropologie products. Indeed the brand in Europe were approximately 40% of the product and those categories is now sourced locally succeeded in producing positive apparel and accessories comps in the fourth quarter. 
We are aggressively addressing this issue and had begun the process of strengthening our North American design and merchant teams in these two categories. The brand has now been reorganized and product responsibility has been divided between soft and hard goods. [Indiscernible] has joined the Anthropologie Group as President of women. She will oversee and be responsible for all apparel, accessories and beauty products plus the Beholden business. At the same time Andrew Carnie has been promoted to the position of president of Home. In that position he will oversee and be responsible for gift to core and furniture products plus the Terrain business. We have also added a new merchandise manager and three new classification design directors to the women's apparel team. We are determined to fix the fashion issue and are planning for better results as FY '18 progresses."
Reasonable assessment. Mr. Hayne hit on much I'd hope the leadership would -- the fashion is off-pitch, not enough new clothing in January (and I don't mean Spring or resort clothing, thanks), and Anthropologie Europe which features collaborations with local designers and brands is kicking the snot out of USA Anthropologie which features expensive designer stuff you could buy at about seven other stores.

I'm excited that the team on the USA side is being revamped and I'm soooooo disappointed that the Seeking Alpha transcriber missed the name of the new women's head. I'll see if I can dig that information up!

And then, thoughts on the larger retail environment in general:
"Now let me say few words about the macro environment. Without that the retailers in general and URBN specifically face a number of challenges. The most obvious of which is disruption created by the digital revolution. Once again sales from the DTC channel grew much faster than the store channel. DTC session traffic is up strongly while store traffic is weak. The shift in consumer preference is both obvious and growing. Total company penetration of our direct channel across all brands increased by roughly 400 basis points during the holiday season. I predict within the next three years, total URBN retail segment sales by channel will be almost equal. 
This would be fine if the increase in DTC sales were wholly additive, but they're not. Digital shopping is partially replacing store shopping and thus is negatively impacting store traffic and store generated sales. Flat to negative store ‘comps’ are causing occupancy deleverage and eroding four-wall margins. 
Add to that the fact that the U.S. market is oversaturated with retail space and far too much of that space is occupied by stores selling apparel. Retail square feet per capita in the United States is more than six times that of Europe or Japan. And this doesn't count digital commerce. 
Our industry, not unlike the housing industry, saw too much square footage capacity added in the 90's and early 2000's. Thousands of new doors opened and rents soared; this created a bubble, and like housing, that bubble has now burst. We are seeing the results; doors shuttering and rents retreating. 
This trend will continue for the foreseeable future and may even accelerate. Another consequence of overcapacity is discounting and endless promotions as retailers try to drive demand through lower prices. This causes AUR deflation and erodes merchandise margins. 
Given an uncertain environment where occupancy costs are deleveraging and merchandise margins are pressured, how does URBN, with our current portfolio of strong, omni-channel, lifestyle brands, adapt, grow and remain solidly profitable? The answer: we plan to do what any good portfolio manager would. Invest resources in the most promising opportunities, diversify to lower risk, and increase liquidity. Fortunately for us, we are already reasonably diversified. Three years ago, we set out to strengthen and grow our non-apparel categories and have done so with considerable success. We now see many additional opportunities to grow by channel, category and geography."
The quest for diversification is why Terrain was birthed, why Urban Outfitters purchased the Vetri chain of pizza restaurants, and why Anthropologie stores now give as much floor space to home and beauty as they do to clothing. It's all in the name of protecting the company's long-term interests.

My boyfriend is in the financial industry and I'm sure this is all sound in principle, but the clothing customer in me is very saddened by this. Although I'm happy to look at Anthro's beauty stuff and accessories and wish I could populate our home entirely with Anthropologie furniture and decor, the clothing is why I go there. Good clothing is what I miss from Anthro! When is that going to come back exactly?

Another intriguing tidbit from Mr. Hayne's remarks:
"Our highest priority is where we’ve had the most recent success, digital. Last year, we made many improvements to our capabilities in this channel. We developed a single platform for all brands. This enables URBN to be more scalable and efficient in developing and rolling out front end enhancements across all brands, both on mobile, and all websites. We have improved our functionality around check out, payments, search, inventory visibility, in store pick-up, ship to store, mobile capabilities and speed on all web platforms. 
This year, in order to maintain that strong digital growth, we plan to complete the single platform rollout to all brands, make additional improvements to our site functionality, invest more in data analytics so we can know our customers better and give that customer personalized experiences, improve our service levels, including faster and more reliable shipping and enhanced customer communications, give the customer more product choices in all categories, and speak to her on the devices and through the social sites she prefers. 
While doing all of this, we have to ensure that these initiatives are done in a voice that is both brand appropriate and aspiration. To accomplish many of these digital initiatives, we recently reorganized the digital teams and created a new role of Chief Digital Officer. Dave Hayne, our CDO and his team, working in conjunction with the brands and the IT group, should help to facilitate investments in the digital channel by identifying and force ranking opportunities, and should allow us to implement those investments faster and more effectively."
Well, can I just say that the unified platform for all the Urban Outfitters brands is categorically awful? Basically what Mr. Hayne means here is that before UO, Free People and Anthropologie each had their own websites run by different teams and now they all run on a single system and likely by a single team.

I cannot believe that they ditched the class of the field, Free People's old website, for whatever they call the crap they have now. FPMe works only some of the time. Want to see more than 60 Free People items at a time? You can't. Wishlists are now a travesty at Free People, an unusable catastrophe that would make Steve Krug pull all his hair out.

And of course we all know how awful Anthropologie's wishlists are now too. Reviewing items may work or it may not on the site and items often show up in triplicate when they're newly released or disappear for days at a time. Search is also horrid on Anthro's site -- misspell an item name and it doesn't come up, if you get one word of a three-word name wrong forget seeing it, and there is no good way to filter! Anything! Just let me filter dammit.

Awful, awful, awful. No decent agency would allow these sites to be live. If Urban Outfitters thinks that poor websites don't drive customers away, they are dead wrong. I can't tell you how many purchases I've abandoned lately (especially at FP!) because the checkout process is bull excrement.

Here's how Urban Outfitters plans to navigate the upcoming retail uncertainty:
"Lastly, allow me to say a few words about liquidity. Fashion brands always deal with significant product uncertainty and risk. I think of designers and merchants like weather forecasters as they try to accurately predict the future. Today added to this underlying uncertainty is the risk brought on by digital disruption and deflationary pricing pressures. This creates a new level of risk. Besides diversification the best way for us to deal with increased risk is to stay liquid. It is important to keep inventories very lean and have as much flexibility as possible to move in or out of certain products quickly. 
One of our primary goals for each brand this year is to lower initial order quantities and introduce more new products while maintaining lower overall weeks of supply. This means working closely with suppliers and our production and logistics teams to speed up our supply chain capabilities. Risk mitigation and bringing more newness into our product assortments is more important than ever. 
So in conclusion, our plan going forward includes shifting our resources to better align with today's opportunities as we see them, continuing to diversify our businesses around channel, category and geography and placing smaller, more frequent inventory bets and staying as liquid and nimble as possible. 
If we succeed in accomplishing these goals and I believe we will I am confident URBN will successfully navigate the current choppy environment and deliver solid profitability and growth. Finally in closing, I thank our brand leaders David, Trish and Sheila and their teams; Meg and her creative team and our shared service teams for building and maintaining the infrastructure that allows the brands to succeed. 
I thank our 24,000 associates worldwide for their inspiring dedication, drive and creativity. I also recognize and thank our many partners around the world and finally I thank our shareholders for their continued support."
That thank you at the end is lovely!! Twenty four thousand employees worldwide!! That's quite an impressive number.

Here are a few questions from analysts:
Janet KloppenburgGood evening everyone. I was wondering if we could get a better understanding of the Anthropologie domestic business. It sounds like the European team has reconfigured the vendor making expense and is winning there and I am wondering if there are any learnings that can be extended to the domestic business and if you see that the apparel side of the business improving in the near term or whether that is a back half scenario? 
David McCreightHi, Janet. Yes, regarding Anthropologie apparel, it is specifically – the UK team has done an admirable job of understanding their marketplace and customer and adapting the assortment as Dick alluded to quite significantly. The North American team at Anthro has been working to learn more about the customer and clearly as Dick mentioned we have not done a good job of satisfying her with our interpretation of fashion.
again, we believe this is largely our own execution primarily, and secondarily there could be macro issues, but we believe the changes we are making in the merchandising structural team, the design team additions that Meg has added, as well as working with [team] on tightening inventories and responding faster should help us increase our accuracy going forward. We do expect Q1 to be similar to Q4 at this stage and would hope to see improvements in the back half of the year as we continue to adapt and learn.

Lindsay Drucker MannThanks. Good afternoon everyone. I just wanted to ask you had talked about a number of initiatives to drive the business into next year and going forward. One of the areas you mentioned was logistics and speed to the consumer. I was hoping you could elaborate on ways that you are looking to drive on maybe delivery to the consumer through direct faster sort of what I assume. I would love to hear those details and how that might impact margins? 
Frank ConfortiYes, I think driving faster, speed to market, is really only one part of the goal that we have set for really all the brands and the shared service folks. I think the beginning or the primary task is starts back in planning and we are trying to plan for faster turnover. So we want to bring in smaller groups of product so smaller initial orders and then sell through those faster and have hopefully from that better sales because there is more newness in the assortment, lower markdowns, but it also allows us to lower our overall inventories. So, in order to do that we are going to need more new styles because not every style that we will bring in with this lower volume is going to be a re-order item. So we need more design capabilities. We need more speed to market so that involves both the production group and the logistics group to bring it in faster in shipping and get it out faster to the stores or to the customers. So I think it's sort of across the board initiative that touches many people, many places and we are right in the middle of it. I think Free People really is in a good position right now because they have lowered their inventories, the furthest and the fastest so they did a great job. I know Trish and her group are adopting this system from planning and recede as we speak as is the Anthropologie group with David. So again, I can give you more offline color on it, but I think that's the [indiscernible] as I say.

Unidentified AnalystHi, this is Carney Wilson in for Oliver tonight. We just had a higher level question regarding category mixes across the brands over new few years, where do you see the apparel department penetration going by brand and could it become less than 50% Anthropologie and the new separately if you could brief us on any expectations for share repurchases throughout 2017? Thank you. 
David HayneOkay. This is Dave. As far as Anthropologie is concerned I think there is certainly an opportunity, I think if you recall several years back when David was first talking about Home category he has always made the statement that the research would indicate that the Anthropologie customer that women in her 30s and 40s actually spends more money on Home than she does on apparel. So there is an opportunity for apparel given also all the other categories the Anthropologie brand is selling to dip below 50%. We are sort of let the customer decide that I think that's the way to do it. And right now I think we are in a situation where there is so much excess capacity of apparel that it's little difficult in some of the other categories there is not as much excess capacity and so I think it's naturally trending that way. I would hope overtime and this is a longer period of time that the apparel category would still stay front and centered.
Without retreading the same stuff I say every quarter for the last few quarters, the main thing Anthropologie is known for is its clothing. I don't think it's a wise strategy to become a home store that also sells clothing and if the clothing retail market is saturated then what is the home retail market exactly? 

Clothes, clothes, clothes. It's all about the clothes!

Community, what are your thoughts?