Investors in retailer stocks already know two things about holiday results. The first is that, over the past month of 2013, the rising tide of the stock market helped lift all ships. The other is that virtually none of the large retailers have released December sales results. Neither has kept Wall Street from passing its own judgments.
The largest surprise among the publicly traded retailers was Target Corp. (NYSE: TGT). Despite a massive data breach that exposed millions of customer accounts, Target’s shares are flat from a month ago. While that does not match the 3% improvement in the S&P over the same period, it does better than its major competitor, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT), whose shares dropped over 3%. Investors must suspect that the poor results Walmart has posted the last two quarters, both in terms of revenue growth, and same store sales, would not be reversed in December.
America’s two most troubled large retailers remained in trouble, if investor sentiment was accurate. Shares of both J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (NYSE: JCP) and Sears Holdings Corp. (NASDAQ: SHLD), which owns Sears and Kmart, dropped an identical 10%. Apparently neither was able to convince Wall Street that it could overcome ancient stores, poor merchandise selection, and negative consumer attitudes which have already kept people out of their stores for over two years. The drop in their stocks will fuel the impression that neither can survive, at least in its present form. J.C. Penney remains a candidate for Chapter 11. Sears has already begun to sell itself off in pieces.
If the market has had a darling in the retail sector this year, it is Best Buy Co. Inc. (NYSE: BBY). Its shares have risen 225% in the last 52 weeks of trading. However, Wall Street turned against the company in December, pressing its shares down by 5%. Best Buy’s CEO made the case that he had unlocked the secret to keeping customers to fleeing to Amazon, as they have for years. Investors must have rejected that as unlikely as the holiday season advanced toward its close. And, finally, the proxy for the success or failure of e-commerce was Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN), which continues to take market share from bricks-and-mortar stores and their websites. Its share rose 3% in December, barely better than the S&P. While Amazon may have done well with sales, perhaps the concern remains that it discounts products like its Kindle too much, and gives away too much in terms of free shipping.