Navigating Today’s Debt Capital Markets

BY Jim Hogan

For mid-size retail companies — those with anywhere from $10 million to $1 billion in revenue — the combination of today’s steady growth and affordable capital is rare indeed. There is also ample liquidity as traditional middle-market lenders are being joined by institutional investors with deep pockets and a strong desire to participate in these loans. What’s more, new products are available that give borrowers more flexibility. In short, it’s a near ideal environment for midsize company borrowers.

However, that doesn’t make navigating the debt capital markets any easier. New products and more lenders give borrowers more flexibility, but it makes the marketplace arguably more complex. There are new senior debt options available from banks, financial companies and institutional investors that can be structured as either asset-based loans (ABL) or cash-flow-based loans. Junior debt offerings in the form of second liens and mezzanine funding remain widely available in the private market.

Institutional Investors return

CEOs and CFOs looking to take advantage of the current environment to ramp up borrowing should keep a few developments in mind.

In the past, lending to mid-size retailers was dominated by banks and finance companies. But today, large institutions such as pension funds, hedge funds and bank-run mutual funds account for 60% to 70% of senior lending at the higher revenue end of the middle market.

A big reason for this increase in lending is institutional investors’ desire to diversify their holdings from fixed-rate debt to include more floating-rate debt, which offers some protection should interest rates start to rise. Plus, the yield is relatively good.

More products and flexibility

Historically, the long-term financing available in the bond markets has only been open to larger mid-size companies with revenues closer to $1 billion. Most middle-market companies have had to settle for bank loans that amortized in five years. But following the financial crisis, institutional investors are re-emerging to offer bond-like loan facilities with virtually no amortization to smaller middle-market companies. They’re offering loans with virtually no amortization, as low as 1%, so these loans function more like bonds.

Other borrower-friendly products include “delayed draw facilities” and “incremental draw facilities.” In a traditional loan, the company gets all the money up front and immediately begins paying interest on the whole loan. For a fee, delayed draw facilities give a company the flexibility to draw down the cash and begin paying interest when they need it — often over a one-or two-year window. It’s similar to a revolver but in the form of a term loan. This can be a cost-effective option for borrowers.

What’s more, as banks and institutional investors compete for assets in a slow growth economy, “covenant-lite” loans have also returned. Loan covenants are certain measures that serve as early warning signs should a borrower run into trouble. Covenant-lite loan agreements have fewer restrictions and allow the borrower greater flexibility and often fewer reporting requirements.

Regulatory outlook

CEOs and CFOs should remain attuned to the regulatory issues that lenders face, which have become more burdensome since the financial crisis. This year, the Federal Reserve released new guidance for highly leveraged transactions (HLTs) directing all lenders to be extra vigilant when underwriting loans and to demonstrate adequate capital to withstand losses. It’s too early to know the effects of the new guidance, but it could dampen some bank lending in the future.

Overall, the environment for mid-size company borrowers has rarely been brighter. According to the National Center for the Middle Market, retail executives expect a 4.2% increase in revenue in the next 12 months. More lenders, new products and good terms mean that quality companies have access to capital to grow and take advantage of the country’s economic recovery. By keeping a few key developments in mind, CEOs and CFOs can successfully navigate today’s debt markets and build a long-lasting relationship with the right lender.

Jim Hogan is senior managing director at GE Capital, Corporate Retail Finance, a leading provider of senior secured loans to retailers in North America, supporting working capital, growth, acquisitions and turnarounds.

Today, large institutions such as pension funds, hedge funds and bank-run mutual funds account for 60% to 70% of senior lending at the higher revenue end of the middle market.


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Pricing Data Fuels Conversions, Revenues and Margins


Alexander Rink, CEO of price intelligence solutions provider 360pi, recently spoke with Chain Store Age to discuss the importance of accurate pricing data to retail success. By obtaining timely internal and external pricing information, retailers can ensure a consistent omnichannel customer experience and also prevent the loss of sales to lower-priced competitors.

What are the advantages of having up-to-date pricing information on your competitors?

The reality of price transparency, promulgated by comparison-shopping engines and mobile devices, means that retailers must now assume that a large percentage of their shoppers are checking their top competitors’ prices before making a purchase. Consequently, a price difference of even a few dollars can, and often does, translate into a lost sale.

It is essential that retailers know where they stand with respect to competitors’ prices in order to successfully execute any pricing strategy. Up-to-date pricing information gives retailers the price intelligence they need to “right-price” their offering in order to maximize conversions, revenues and margins.

How has the advent of omnichannel commerce affected retailers’ pricing strategies?

While many retailers may still be formulating or experimenting with their omnichannel pricing policy, shoppers are increasingly demanding a consistent experience across channels, and that experience includes the price they pay.

All retailers need to consider their and their competitors’ online pricing when formulating an omnichannel pricing strategy. It is imperative for retailers to leverage online price intelligence, regardless of the extent of their own e-commerce presence.

How can retailers use pricing technology to combat “showrooming”?

With the ubiquity of mobile devices and price comparison engines and applications, brick-and-mortar retailers must be right-priced at the point of purchase or risk having their in-store shoppers leave empty-handed and purchase the items from competitors.

What types of decisions can retailers fine-tune with pricing data?

Retailers can use price intelligence to fine-tune their pricing strategies and day-to-day pricing decisions. These include reducing overpriced products that are damaging the retailer’s price reputation, increasing the prices of underpriced products that are unnecessarily leaving margin on the table, strategically ensuring the retailer’s pricing is in line with their brand messaging, and tactically responding to new competitor price moves in hours instead of days or weeks.

Retailers can also use competitive pricing data to go on the offensive in the market, such as by dynamically highlighting products where they are priced most competitively, or by powering comparison shopping on their own websites through “Compare at [higher competitor price]” banners, which helps to increase site conversion rates.

What specific capabilities is 360pi providing its users via pricing tools?

360pi delivers continuous price intelligence for identical and comparable products along with supporting product information, such as shipping fees and product availability. Our proprietary platform enables retailers to access this product and price intelligence online and in-store, and provides easy integration into back-office systems.

The 360pi Competitive Intelligence solution suite includes capabilities for real-time price comparisons of exact and “like” products, evaluation of competitive assortments to identify gaps and opportunities, support for dynamic rules-based pricing, and other features.


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Spreading Good Vibes

BY Dan Berthiaume

Feelgoodz Inc. likes to create a customer environment that is as carefree and comfortable as its signature merchandise: eco-friendly flip-flops.

Although the company operates one store in Raleigh, N.C., its e-commerce site serves as its primary direct-to-consumer selling channel, meaning that smoothly functioning order fulfillment is of paramount importance to maintaining positive customer-service vibrations.

In the beginning, Feelgoodz outsourced fulfillment to third-party logistics providers. But in the fourth quarter of 2012, the company decided to move fulfillment processes in-house. It soon realized the true scope of the task it had taken on.

Moving In-House

“We opened our own warehouse and brought everything in-house when we made that switch,” said CEO Mark Saad. “We realized pretty quickly we had to get up to speed with the program. This included everything down to scheduling regular pickups.”

Further exacerbating the situation was the fact that Feelgoodz was moving from a mostly seasonal business focused on selling warm-weather flip-flops to a year-round enterprise that also offered closed shoes. In addition, the company, which does a large wholesale operation, was seeing increased traffic in its direct-to-consumer business.

Feelgoodz, originally founded by Kyle Brenner in 2008 and then merged with Saad’s similarly aligned eco-friendly footwear company Kinder Soles in 2011, had always used UPS for deliveries. When the company realized it needed assistance in effectively meeting the demands of a year-round consumer-focused supply chain, the company turned to the supplier for help.

“In moving fulfillment from third-party providers to in-house services, we send out shipments of various sizes,” Brenner said. “Shipping is one of the biggest costs we incur. Shipments can range from one pair of shoes to 100 pairs. UPS helped us figure out the best solution to ship each one.”

For example, Feelgoodz will generally send small shipments using UPS ground delivery. But for large shipments, the retailer often uses UPS SurePost, a hosted service where the logistics provider partners with the U.S. Post Office to help companies efficiently complete the all-important “last mile” of customer deliveries.

Delivering Something Extra

“SurePost cuts down the expense of customer deliveries,” said Saad. “It’s a great add-on.”

In addition, Feelgoodz started selling goods to customers in Canada, using UPS WorldEase international shipment service to fulfill those orders. However, the retailer leverages UPS hosted solutions to not only get deliveries to consumers more efficiently, but to turn them into high-tech marketing opportunities.

“We use UPS technology to add on branding and marketing to shipping labels for SurePoint deliveries,” Saad said. “We can add a code to the label that the customer can use for a discount on their next purchase.”

On the marketing side, Feelgoodz uses UPS to help stimulate its business.

“We can embed a QR code into the shipping label that the customer can scan to watch a video about our products,” Saad said.

Brenner and Saad both agreed that it is hard to calculate a specific return on their investment in hosted UPS solutions and services. However, in general, the retailers have no doubt about the value UPS is delivering.

“There is a significant amount of savings,” Saad stated.


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