Six Well Known Apparel/Retailers Under Very Dark Clouds (ARO, APP, CWTR, LIZ, PSUN, TLB)

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The world of boutique apparel and retailing apparel is a boom or bust business it seems.  Many companies start out great but either missteps occur or the trends move away from the original focus of the company.  Being public companies, it is up to management to steer these ships the right direction.  Change happens, and those retailers who cannot adapt or adjust their business models cause severe suffering.  We have identified the following as the most troubled of the more widely recognized retail/apparel names: Aeropostale, Inc. (NYSE: ARO); American Apparel, Inc. (AMEX: APP); Coldwater Creek Inc. (NASDAQ: CWTR); Liz Claiborne Inc. (NYSE: LIZ); Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. (NASDAQ: PSUN); and The Talbots Inc. (NYSE: TLB).

What these companies can do to turn around differs greatly.  Each apparel retailer is a unique situation.  They are also effectively new companies as far as the public is concerned about three times a year on average.

Aeropostale, Inc. (NYSE: ARO) is just stuck in the mud, or maybe in quicksand.  The former flying-high retailer has lost its cool and trends keep going south here.  We thought this was looking a bit busted months ago when it was still well above $20 and now shares have been flirting with $11.00.  What this teen apparel retailer can do to get back the cool is hard to predict.  Maybe they need the next teen star endorsement.  This is the strongest of our weakest retail/apparel names today.  At $11.30 the market cap is over $900 million still even with a 52-week range of $10.34 to $27.73.  The company is also expected to keep making money, but with no growth and with no outside enthusiasm.  This one has also not loaded itself with long-term debt, but that is about the only good thing to say right now.

American Apparel, Inc. (AMEX: APP) is in limbo.  The company that was supposed to be ‘the next Gap’ just imploded, management scandal, financial woes, and other irregularities just have this one down and out.  Shares have stayed under $1.00 and it is not even a situation here where a stock market recovery is assured to even bring up any support.  Can Ron Burkle fix this situation?  At $0.91, the market cap is $94 million or so and the 52-week range is $0.66 to $1.90.  American Apparel has almost zero following by Wall Street, but let’s just say that finances have not been pleasant here and the moves by outside holders do not imply that shareholders will be treated well.

Coldwater Creek Inc. (NASDAQ: CWTR) has almost been forgotten about and we won’t publish our nickname for this one.  Being the Chico’s-wannabe has done little to drive the company.  SHares began their slide before the recession and the long-term chart just looks like a staircase straight down.  At $1.02, the market cap is $93.5 million and the 52-week range is $0.82 to $5.89.  This one was supposed to be an e-commerce and online winner, but it turns out that this was not the case.  The company is also expected to lose money in 2011 and in 2012.

Liz Claiborne Inc. (NYSE: LIZ) has lost much of its cool and even the Lucky brand has not come to its rescue as many hoped and its flagship brands have not really helped turn the ship either.  AT $4.31, the 52-week range is $4.02 to $7.90.  Liz got crushed going into the recession and this was above $40 in 2007.  Shares are higher than in early 2009, but to say this has foundered would be an understatement.  The market cap is over $400 million and the company has too much debt and not enough liquidity for safety.  Analysts are expecting -$0.55 EPS in 2011 and are looking for $0.20 EPS in 2012.

Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. (NASDAQ: PSUN) has been a shell of its former glory since the peak of the recession.  The performance today after a disappointing back to school season and after having missed prior targets in weeks and months earlier are becoming par for the course.  At $1.47 now, shares hit a 2-year low of $1.26 today.  The balance sheet is going to be a concern if Pac-Sun keeps missing the mark here.  The market cap is just under $100 million here and we are not endorsing anything positive to say at this point with another 30%+ drop on Wednesday.

The Talbots Inc. (NYSE: TLB) is in such a strange place that you have to scratch your head.  The upscale womens apparel retailer has faltered at each time it has tried to turn around.  Shares are now close to where they were at the peak selling of the late 2008 to early 2009 recession.  So much for that would be merger helping it out.  It seems nothing is working here.  Even at $2.78 it has a market cap of almost $200 million and the 52-week range is $2.33 to $13.43.  The one thing that may help is that expectations are so low and there still seems to be some hope for a turnaround next year that gets it closer to break-even again.  Liquidity remains a concern for us longer-term.

What makes apparel/retail so interesting is that the consumer can turn on a company extremely fast.  Every one of these companies was formerly something much greater.  But when those same-store sales turn south as customers go look elsewhere for the next cool, look out.

The good news is that the extreme cyclical and seasonal trends can also work for any of these companies.  One great ad campaign and one great product cycle, and any apparel retailer can be cool all over again.

Unfortunately, these companies and stocks are all in the dog house.  Some more than others.  These all share one thing in common: it will take far more than a stock market recovery to turn these companies around and to save their shareholders.

JON C. OGG