Ascena Retail Group Earnings Call Insights: Comp Progression and Justice Business

Ascena Retail Group (NASDAQ:ASNA) recently reported its third quarter earnings and discussed the following topics in its earnings conference call.

Comp Progression

Taposh Bari – Goldman Sachs: I guess, I just wanted to start with the comp progression. So, last we heard from you, you were running flat at the end of March, which I would have imagined was the worst of retail. It sounds like things got worse in April, if you could just elaborate on that, and if you could just provide some color as to what’s happening in May just to start?

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David R. Jaffe – President and CEO: Well, without getting into the specifics, April was tough, and I think we’ve all followed the weather patterns in reports from all the other retailers and you see our final numbers for the quarter, which was clearly disappointing. Then, May, you just – you follow the weather again, the first three weeks in May were perfect. And for those of us that struggled through Memorial weekend on the East Coast with sweaters on, it was a tough weekend. As we said, that last week in May and so far in June is – the word we’re using is choppy, which means in our vernacular, that it’s been up and down and it’s been inconsistent among the brands for various reasons that are specific to each brand. So we’re not seeing that strong trend continue that we saw in the first three weeks in May, which frankly is disappointing, but there are reasons for it and I hate to keep using the weather, but certainly Memorial Day weekend was not great. As we look out, we still were in good shape and well positioned, but it’s hard to see what the consumer is doing. One of the things that we’ve seen on a global level, I’m sure you read the same reports is that, there seems to be a trend toward more durable good purchases and less consumer discretionary. So, as auto sales are up, and home sales and home furnishing sales are up, we’re seeing the apparel segment particularly at the moderate level suffer a little bit. And one report I just saw on consumer debt formation, showed it at lower levels than expected and the vast majority of that interestingly was for auto loans and only a tiny bit was for credit card or private label credit card. So, I think we’re seeing some trends out there that maybe shorter term in duration, but it’s certainly playing a little bit of havoc with our results, and we’re going to be watching those really carefully as we round the corner and start heading into back to school in the fall season.

Taposh Bari – Goldman Sachs: As you’ve progressed here into the post-Memorial Day, have you seen promotions throughout the industry ramp up, because it sounds like – looking at the way that things evolve through the first quarter, a lot of companies missed on their sales plan given the weather. It seemed like promotions were fairly rational, but now they were entering call it this clearance period, are you seeing an increased level of markdowns across the space?

David R. Jaffe – President and CEO: We saw a bunch during memorial weekend. You know I’m sure there is always someone who is doing something, but it wasn’t that that pervasive you walk down the mall and everybody during Memorial weekend had these crazy sales, we’re not seeing that to the same extent. So, I’m hoping that people got their inventories aligned and we’re not going to see that heavy promotional environment, which isn’t good for anybody.

Taposh Bari – Goldman Sachs: Last one for you guys is the SG&A line. Obviously, a lot of wood to chop there, when should we start to see some leverage on SG&A as you work through some of these overhead opportunities?

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Dirk Montgomery – EVP and CFO: I would say into next fall and then over the next 12 to 24 months. As we’ve said before some of the overhead reduction opportunities will just take time to implement and we see them ramping up over the next 12 to 24 months.

Taposh Bari – Goldman Sachs: Are you saying next fall is one we should start to expect SG&A leverage on a comparable basis?

Dirk Montgomery – EVP and CFO: We’ll give a lot more detail on that when we talk about next year’s guidance in the fall, but I think we certainly see as we talked about last year ongoing opportunities for overhead reduction, as we head into ’14 and ’15.

 

Justice Business

Scott Krasik – BB&T Capital Markets: Just wanted to drill down on Justice a little bit. If you combine Q3 with what you expect to do in Q4, maybe sort of low growth on a comp basis. I’m not sure exactly what you’ve implied in your guidance for the operating margin in Justice in the fourth quarter. But maybe talk about what your expectations are going forward from here. Is this business just a low comp business at this point? You talked about expanding margins in the past, but you’re probably going to be sort of flattish for the year relative to last year. So how do you think about that now?

David R. Jaffe – President and CEO: Well, I think there have been some unique issues in the Justice business. We have talked, Scott, about how Easter is so important to the missy customer at dressbarn, Lane Bryant. Easter is right around spring break, and if that customer isn’t going somewhere warm or it’s not warm out spring break, those sales suffer as we saw in that third quarter. I think the business there is still very strong. I think that they’ve developed some new tools like this flash sale, which has been able to drive high levels of engagement with the customer as well as attract new customers. So, they’ve added another tools to their kit, and then finally, we’re rolling out Brothers, so there will be 80 stores for back-to-school. What that does is as you heard me say earlier is create incremental volume. So, we’ll tell you more about the specifics on that in October, but as I look out, there’s no reason why every store maybe have to be relocated to expand, but there’s no reason why every store can’t have a Brothers shop in it, and if you continue to be successful in adding Brothers volume without impacting the girls volume, that is going to be a strong comp driver…

Scott Krasik – BB&T Capital Markets: You said that’s historically was the mid-to-high single digit lift from Brothers, on the comp?

David R. Jaffe – President and CEO: You did say?

Dirk Montgomery – EVP and CFO: Yeah, we did.

David R. Jaffe – President and CEO: Okay. Yes.

Scott Krasik – BB&T Capital Markets: So, in terms of rolling it out, you seem as you’ve gone from zero to 25 to 50 to 80…

David R. Jaffe – President and CEO: Yes. The point was that, remember that we only have a handful of those stores that are truly top. So, you get the initial incremental and then we’re watching them comp on themselves. So, see that business not just at an initial incremental but also as we continue to refine the merchandising and improve the word of mouth and other marketing that we’re doing to support the building of the brand. We see that growing and becoming a very important addition to our business at Justice.

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Scott Krasik – BB&T Capital Markets: In terms of incentive compensation, I don’t know if it moves the needle or not. I assume that a second guidance, because they say that’s probably going to be a lot lower year-over-year in the fourth quarter. Does that – is that a meaningful number we should think about for Q4?

Dirk Montgomery – EVP and CFO: It’s worked into our guidance numbers. We actually adjusted as we go and true it up as we go. So, I wouldn’t say that necessarily year-over-year it’s going to show you a significant benefit as we head into the fourth quarter. Although I don’t – I don’t have my facts handy on what that actual expense was in the fourth quarter, but I mean certainly, with our results being what they are, the overall incentive expense is going to be lower than it was last year.

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