Opportunity in Kohl’s as Merchandising Officer Departs

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Kohl’s Corp. (NYSE: KSS) may have a mixed bag on the news reaction that the company’s chief merchandising officer is leaving the company. This sort of news can be a disaster for a retailer, particularly in apparel. Still, that may not be the case for investors in Kohl’s who are looking beyond the next week or month.

The problem at Kohl’s is that it gets no real respect from those who invest in it. Its stock does not really fall out of bed when there is bad news, but the company is so middle of the road that many people almost never hear about Kohl’s. This company has sluggish sales trends, and recent efforts to bring in new merchandise lines just hasn’t exactly drawn people to Kohl’s more than anywhere else.

As a reminder, there are just very few growth avenues for large department stores in America at this point. To grow often means to take market share – from the competition. Kohl’s even had a 1.2% drop in same-store sales and a 10% profit drop in 2013 to less than $900 million. Total revenue was down 1% to right at $19 billion.

So, again, this departure may represent an opportunity for Kohl’s and its shareholders. After looking around at research reports for some inference and outlook here, it turns out that Bank of America Merrill Lynch also said that this management change is a positive. The firm said,

“Management indicated it was Brennan’s choice to leave. However, based on Brennan’s performance reviews in the company proxy filings, we infer the Board has been less than satisfied with his performance over the past two years. Brennan’s employees will report to CEO Kevin Mansell while Kohl’s searches for a permanent replacement. The company plans to hire from outside the company, rather than promoting from within. We think the new hire will not only have merchandising experience, but also have the skills necessary to potentially serve as CEO one day.”

BofA added that Michelle Gass, who was recently hired as Chief Customer Officer, also has that skill set to become CEO one day. The Merrill Lynch report further said,

“Assortment newness and excitement has waned at Kohl’s over the past few years, which has weighed on traffic and sales. The company’s recent initiatives in beauty and plans to launch three new national brands (Disney, Juicy and Izod) in F2014 are steps in the right direction, but new merchandising leadership could enable the company to accelerate this pace of change.”

Merrill Lynch maintained its Buy rating and $65 price target on the news. The reality is that this one report from Merrill Lynch is among the more positive calls. Kohl’s shares were down almost 1% at $55.13 as an unofficial closing price on Tuesday against a 52-week range of $45.33 to $59.00. Also, the consensus price target is only at $57.65 – and the street’s highest analyst price target is only $1 higher than Merrill Lynch at $66.

Now we have estimates at $4.32 in earnings per share for the coming year.  This means that Kohl’s trades at less than 13-times forward earnings, more or less in-line with rival Macy’s, Inc. (NYSE: M). These are at discounts to the broader stock market – in part due to no growth opportunities.

Again, this is not riskless betting on a retail giant who just lost its top merchandise officer. That being said, it seems like there may be opportunity here for those who can wait for the dust to settle and wait for a longer-term view to be more clear.