AutoZone Earnings Call Insights: Weather Impact, Productivity Growth

On Tuesday, AutoZone Inc (NYSE:AZO) reported its third quarter earnings and discussed the following topics in its earnings conference call. Here’s what the C-suite revealed.

Weather Impact

Gary Balter – Credit Suisse First Boston: It’s Gary and (Simian). I will ask the questions and the Simian will ask the follow-up, or whatever the rules are. You commented, Bill, on the fact that business fluctuates and we appreciate that, but what happens and you could – maybe you haven’t seen this type of period, but with such mild winter, is there a concern that that business in the spring will stay weaker into the summer, because you just didn’t do the damage to the cars that you normally do in winter, how do you think about that?

A Closer Look: AutoZone Earnings Cheat Sheet>>

William C. Rhodes, III – Chairman, President and CEO: Yeah, I think your point is an excellent point, and I’m not sure that we have a well defined answer for it. I don’t remember a winter where the weather was as mild as it was and when spring came as early as it did. Clearly, and we said this on our second quarter call, our failure related businesses did not perform as well during the winter as they have historically. What I don’t know is if we get significant heat in the summer like we typically do, will we have increased rate of failures or lower rate of failures? I think that’s yet to be seen, and I don’t have a good proxy for assessing how we’ve done it in the past.

Simian – Credit Suisse: It’s (Simian) for a follow-up, two parts. To the extent, there is a pull forward, can you look at regions in which weather changes were not as dramatic and has there been more consistency? The second question, the commercial programs, as you mentioned, are still relatively immature, but in some of the older rollouts, say on the three-year side, can you talk about the balance of growth between the new customers versus increasing share with the existing ones?

William C. Rhodes, III – Chairman, President and CEO: Sure. I’ll take both parts of that, Simian. Yes, in places where we have more normalized weather patterns, we have definitely seen more normalized sales patterns, and that’s happened during this whole period, both during the winter time, during the early spring and during the later spring. As far as the older commercial programs, one thing that I think is important to highlight, and if you looked at the productivity of our commercial programs, they weren’t necessarily as strong in the quarter. Some of that gets into when in the quarter we are opening those programs. So, I wouldn’t read too much into that. What I will say is we’re continuing to be very pleased with the performance of our older programs as well as our newer programs and you must understand that on the older programs as we’re openings some of these new programs, we are taking cannibalizing some of the sale of the older programs, but we are frankly quite happy with the progress that we’re seeing on that front so far. As far as specific customers, we continued to grow new customers, we continue to accelerate the growth rate of retained customers and we unfortunately do lose customers, but we’re losing them at a slower rate than we have historically have. So, we feel good about all three of those metrics at this point.

Productivity Growth

Christopher Horvers – JPMorgan: Can you talk more specifically about the variability during the quarter. The math on your competitors suggested sort of mid-single digit negative comps in April and related to that, what are you seeing in May that gives you confident that the pull forward was generally isolated to that the month of April?

William T. Giles – CFO and EVP, Finance, Information Technology and Store Development: We wouldn’t comment specifically on our month overall, but we weren’t negative in any month during the quarter. So, again for instance, April and I don’t think it’s unusual for any of the other retailer. It was a little bit softer. We attribute a lot of that to the weather. Again, we don’t see anything from a macro perspective or the behavior of our customers that would indicate to us that there has been a change in the health of the industry. So, we remain relatively positively as we look into the summer months and we’ll continue to execute our strategies.

Christopher Horvers – JPMorgan: Last year you had, there were some negative traffic comps in DIY. Could you talk about what you saw in this most recent quarter and how are you thinking about DIY growth going forward, just maybe qualitatively?

William C. Rhodes, III – Chairman, President and CEO: Sure. As we’ve talked about over the – I guess about the last year, we have returned to where we’ve been challenged on transaction count and have had negative transaction counts in our business each of the last four quarters. That trend didn’t change significantly one way or the other during this quarter. As we’ve mentioned many times, some of it is structural in nature as the longevity of parts are much longer than they used to be, but the prices of those longer-lasting parts are much higher. I don’t think our point of view on transaction counts has changed any over the last year.

Christopher Horvers – JPMorgan: Just one final one, as you think about 25% of your stores having commercial programs are three years younger, what’s the waterfall on productivity growth. I mean do these stores come out at a – commercial program comes out at a 70% productivity and then ramps up over four, five years to 100%, is that what you’re seeing?

William T. Giles – CFO and EVP, Finance, Information Technology and Store Development: Yeah. Probably little less than that, and frankly Chris, I think that we’re still monitoring and measuring the model if you will of how the commercial programs mature. When you think about all the things that we’ve done to our commercial programs over the last three or four years between the territory sales managers, some of the technology that we’ve added in the hub stores, all the inventory we put into the hub stores to improve our coverage overall. It’s an evolving model, and as Bill pointed out before our programs are opening up stronger today than they were a few years ago, and they are continuing to ramp, but we don’t really know what the maturity curve ultimately will be, but we’re pretty happy with the program that we’ve opened up to-date, and the progress that we’re seeing.

William C. Rhodes, III – Chairman, President and CEO: Yeah, can I build on that for a second too. I think the most important thing is we don’t think our oldest programs are mature. We think that they have tremendous upside from where we are today, so we don’t know where the high watermark will be.