By Siddharth Cavale and Ananya Mariam Rajesh
(Reuters) -Target on Wednesday forecast holiday-quarter profit largely above analyst expectations as supply chain costs finally eased and its efforts to control inventory started to pay off, sending shares up 17%.
The big-box retailer’s stock has lost a quarter of its value in a turbulent year marked by elevated inflation. Shoppers have focused on food and essentials purchases while spending less on home goods, electronics, toys and apparel.
Economists estimate this year’s holiday season will be less robust than in 2022, and Target CEO Brian Cornell on a post-earnings call said shoppers are delaying purchases until the last minute.
Cornell noted, for example, that the chain is seeing people put off buying sweatshirts or denim usually bought in August or September to later in the season.
Target sales declined by an average 7% in August and September alongside declines in transaction count and value, TD Cowen said in a note ahead of its earnings. Target offered back-to-school deals during this period.
Cornell cautioned that although shoppers are still spending, the company was not out of the woods as higher interest rates, the resumption of student loan repayments, increased credit card debt and reduced savings keep up the pressure.
“This is a clear indication of the pressures they’re facing as they work to stretch their budgets until the next paycheck,” he said.
To adapt to this shifting behavior, Target said it would place a big focus on value, for example, offering over two-thirds of its holiday toy collection and holiday decorations priced below $25 and $20, respectively.
This includes an exclusive FAO Schwarz toy collection, with 50% of the assortment under $20 and $15 ornament sets and baking products and $10 throw pillows and tree skirts.
The company is also offering four weeks of deals leading up to Black Friday where it plans to showcase its new collections with Kendra Scott jewelry, Fenty Beauty and an exclusive kitchenware brand called Figmint.
Gross margins improved to 27.4% from 24.7% a year earlier, due to fewer discounts, a 14% reduction in inventories and related costs, and lower freight, supply-chain and delivery expenses.
Shares rose more than 17% on Wednesday, making it the biggest gainer in the S&P 500 index and putting it on track for its largest one-day gain in more than four years.
“Investors are rewarding the stock because it is getting better than where it came from,” said Brian Mulberry, a client portfolio manager at Zacks Investment Management.
Target’s stock is cheap with a price to earnings (P/E) ratio of 12.83 compared to Walmart’s 23.93 and the sector benchmark, the S&P 500 Consumer Staples Merchandise Retail’s 36.62, according to LSEG data.
Price pressures are starting to ease ahead of the holidays. U.S. Commerce Department data showed that consumer prices didn’t change in October, with the annual rise in underlying inflation at its lowest in two years.
On Wednesday, Target forecast adjusted earnings to land between $1.90 and $2.60 per share in the fourth quarter. The midpoint of that range topped analysts’ expectations of $2.22 per share, according to LSEG data. It also expects holiday-quarter comparable sales to decline in the mid-single-digit percentage range, compared with expectations of a 3.97% drop.
Dave Wagner, equity analyst and portfolio manager at Aptus Capital Advisors said the wide range of Target’s outlook showed that executives had “no clue” on what to expect this holiday season.
Target has faced unique challenges this year including backlash in May over its LGBTQ-themed merchandise and a spike in retail thefts that it said led it to shut nine stores in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon.
On Wednesday, executives said inventory losses caused by issues including theft and accounting errors had decreased and would not be as bad in the fourth quarter compared to prior quarters, in part due to tight control on inventories.
(Reporting by Siddharth Cavale in New York and Ananya Mariam Rajesh in BengaluruEditing by Matthew Lewis, Chizu Nomiyama and Nick Zieminski)