Tag Archives: Wal-mart

What was Sam Saying in 1977?

Sam WaltonOver the last couple weeks, I’ve spent some time getting acquainted with the “young” Sam Walton. Walmart’s website reproduces annual reports going back to 1972, and some of the early ones include letters from the entrepreneurial Chairman. Let’s take 1977 as a case study.

In their fiscal year 1977, Wal-Mart increased its store count from 125 to 153 (or 22.4%), while at the same time growing sales from $340 million to $479 million (40.9%) and earnings from $11.5 million to $16.5 million (43.5%)—more stores, producing even more sales, and even better earnings.

If those look like outstanding numbers, you need not make an appointment with your optometrist. As Walton narrates, “your Company again achieved record highs…” [notice the possessive] Comparable same store sales increased 19%–“to my knowledge, no other general merchandise retailer in the United States came close to equaling this figure.” And expenses remain low, “… classified as one of the lowest in the industry.” Since 1974, the total expense structure fell from 21.1% of sales to 20.8%.

Yet, even with Wal-Mart’s rapid growth, dividends increased 25%, from .08 to .1 per share. And this should be the norm, for “our Board of Directors has a stated policy of continuing to increase dividends proportionate to our increase in earnings.”

Rest does not find the able though, for ambition demands activity. In the year ahead, Wal-Mart “will be striving to achieve our sales goal of $100 per square foot of gross store space. Last year, we hit a new high of $88 a square foot in sales, which was well above the industry average.” So continues the challenge of “developing Wal-Mart into one of the leading retailers in the United States.” I wonder whether Sears Roebuck got a copy of the letter?

Of course, the investor’s question remains. Would you want to be partners in the discount retail business with the ambitious Arkansan? The trends look promising—consistently selling more, and earning more, with relatively meager capital investments. If you’re game, what would you pay to partner with Walton? By January 1977, he’s using assets with a book value of $66.2 million and earning $16.5 million. For an average business, one might pay 10x earnings plus book value. But a discount retailer who just grew earnings 43.5%?

In early 1977, that partnership would have cost you less than $12 per share—a price that implied Walmart’s value to be $163 million. More recently, the market values the founder’s business near $188 billion.

Disclosure: No position

Finding the Next Sam Walton

mungerWe’ve banked a few posts for the upcoming week, so expect a more regular schedule again for a while.

For today, enjoy some of Charlie Munger, discussing “The Art of Stock Picking.”

There he provocatively highlights the stunning success of one Sam Walton:

“It’s quite interesting to think about Wal-Mart starting from a single store in Bentonville, Arkansas against Sears, Roebuck with its name, reputation and all of its billions. How does a guy in Bentonville, Arkansas with no money blow right by Sears, Roebuck? And he does it in his own lifetime ‑ in fact, during his own late lifetime because he was already pretty old by the time he started out with o­ne little store….

He played the chain store game harder and better than anyone else. Walton invented practically nothing. But he copied everything anybody else ever did that was smart ‑ and he did it with more fanaticism and better employee manipulation. So he just blew right by them all.

He also had a very interesting competitive strategy in the early days. He was like a prizefighter who wanted a great record so he could be in the finals and make a big TV hit. So what did he do? He went out and fought 42 palookas. Right? And the result was knockout, knockout, knockout 42 times.

Walton, being as shrewd as he was, basically broke other small town merchants in the early days. With his more efficient system, he might not have been able to tackle some titan head-on at the time. But with his better system, he could destroy those small town merchants. And he went around doing it time after time after time. Then, as he got bigger, he started destroying the big boys.

Well, that was a very, very shrewd strategy.”

Later Munger opines that “were [he] a young man,” he might concentrate his investing energies of finding great companies with stellar management when they are just starting out.  In that vein, we’ll be doing a little research on the young Sam Walton and his retailing tricks over the next few weeks.  If you have any resources you’d recommend, or would like to contribute, please pass them along.

Disclosure: I, or persons whose accounts I manage, own debt of Sears at the time of this writing.

Retailing and Moats

target-logo-copyFew retailers benefit from an enduring economic moat because many goods stocked on their shelves reside at their competitors. Seemingly the only thing to distinguish their goods is the price. Hence in retail, the widest and best moat is found around the business that consistently offers the lowest price. As Charlie Munger observes, “retail is a very tough business. [Warren and I] realized that we were wrong. Practically every great chain-store operation that has been around long enough eventually gets in trouble and is hard to fix. The dominant retailer in one twenty-year period is not necessarily the dominant retailer in the next.”*

Though only fools would dare position themselves contrary to Munger, it is striking, when one surveys the American retail space, how many retailers appear to thrive. Of course, Circuit City and Linen ‘n Things have recently taken the fall, but the majority still remain, even amid this dire economic environment. Yet, when I survey the survivors, it is hard to discern any economic moat, much less a wide one. The washing machines at Lowe’s, at Sears, and at Best Buy appear virtually indistinguishable; the same Dockers line the walls of Sears, Kohls, and JCPenney. Yet, more of our family’s dollars find their way to Target than any other, even though Wal-Mart often offers better prices. Are we doubly fools, or does Target offer something which its competitors do not?

Looking at the numbers, Target has 351,000 employees, which produce 64.95 billion in sales, at a gross margin of 28.6% and an operating margin of 6.78%. Sears is likely their most similar competitor—in inventory, assets, and sales—and it has 324,000 employees, producing 46.77 billion in sales, at a gross margin of 27.05% and an operating margin of 1.31%. Wal-Mart, with its gargantuan 405 billion in sales, brings a lower gross margin of 24.52% and an operating margin of 5.6%. (So that’s what we should mean when we say we will make it up on volume.)

With these numbers, Target’s excellent margins leap from the page—an observation which seemingly runs contrary to our opening thesis: that offering the lowest price produces the best competitive advantages in retailing. So the question is: how can Target sell the same stuff for higher prices than its competitors?

My hypothesis is that Target offers a unique shopping experience, one which many women in their 20s, 30s and 40s particularly love. I say women largely based on my own idiosyncratic anecdotal evidence. For one, my wife and her sisters craft their weekends and shopping needs around a weekly excursion to Target, and it is indeed an excursion, because most of the trip involves just walking around, picking over shoes, accessories, clothes, baby gear, towels, sheets, and household décor. For all of these items, I have never seen any of them make a purchase from Wal-Mart or Sears. And of course, once you’re in the door, the convenience brings household goods and groceries into your cart.

Perhaps more interesting and illustrative is a simple Google search for “I love Target” or “Why I love Target.” Compared to competitors, the fan base is quite remarkable. “Target Brand Boxed Riesling is packaged in such an irresistibly cute green box that I could not resist it.” “Tonight I popped in Target after teaching a Kindermusik class… I ran across these shoes [picture].” “This is why I love Target… I want to kiss the person who designed them and make out with the person that decided to only charge me $30! LOVE IT! [link]” Sure, such banter is fun, spontaneous, and whimsical, and not too much should be drawn from it. But it does strike me that Target has established a shopping experience, shared by many, that compels sales of superfluous goods at profitable prices.

Fans talk about wide, uncrowded aisles, the shoe designers, the lighting, the employees. The reasons are multiple, but the passion is earnest. When thinking about the prospects of Target’s moat, it is hard to interpret the competitive advantage expressed by this passion. But certainly something is there that other retailers are missing.

Disclosure: I, or persons whose accounts I manage, own debt of Sears Holdings at the time of this writing.

* Schroeder, Alice.  The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life (Random House, 2008): 332.

Ebay and Auctions II — The Deadline

Following from yesterday’s post, I want to further explore my hunch that Ebay is a great business. One of its major sources of revenues are its auctions, which bring unique excitement to what has become an increasingly homogenous experience of shopping. Additionally, it has attained that critical mass of buyers and sellers (often called the “network effect“), making it the optimal marketplace for buyer hunters or bargain hunters.

Yet another critical feature of auctions is that they offer a transaction structure that exploits an important selling strategy—the deadline. As all good sales representatives know, one of the most difficult hurdles for a buyer to jump is the last one—the one which concentrates his will in a yes. Hence most sales promotions employ this strategy’s advantage by pummeling their buyer with the knowledge that their purchase price will only be available for a limited time.

The deadline, coupled with a bidding format, almost guarantees that interest will transfer into sales at a very high rate. At a brick-and-mortar store, a buyer rightly assumes that the product will be there whenever they return. There is no time constraint; I’ll buy it later. Not so with Ebay. In fact, on Ebay, the opposite is closer to true; this particular item will never be available again. Of course, many auctions and fixed-price listings on Ebay offer identical commodity goods that you could find in Wal-mart. But, unlike Wal-mart, a substantial percentage of its market’s goods are unique items. This fact, coupled with the deadline, means that Ebay has a selling format uniquely geared toward propelling sales.

Coming up tomorrow—Ebay and inventory.

Disclosure: I, or persons whose accounts I manage, own Ebay at the time of this writing.