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CVS profit nearly doubles on tax cut; to hike wages and benefits

BY Marianne Wilson

CVS Health Corp. will increase employee wages and expand benefits, including introducing paid parental leave, amid a huge jump in its fourth quarter profit as a result of a windfall from the new tax law.

CVS’ net income jumped 92.6% to $3.29 billion, or $3.22 per share, in the quarter ended Dec. 31, from $1.7 billion, or $1.59 per share, a year earlier, helped by a tax benefit of $1.5 billion. Excluding tax savings and a $56 million charge related to the proposed acquisition of Aetna, the company earned $1.92 per share, better than analysts’ average estimate of $1.89.

Net revenue grew 5.3% to $48.4 billion, fueled largely by 9.3% growth in its pharmacy services segment. Pharmacy services revenue hit $34.2 billion, which the company said was the result of brand inflation and an 8.2% increase in pharmacy network claims and mail choice claims.

Front-store same-store sales dropped 0.7% for the quarter, which the company said was the result of softer foot traffic and efforts to rationalize promotion strategies.

CVS’ front-end sales reflect one of its underlying weaknesses, according to Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail.

“As much as CVS is forward thinking and innovative in health, it is an extraordinarily unimaginative and backward-looking retailer,” he said. “This is one of the reasons why front of store sales are still in negative territory despite very weak prior year comparatives and a boost to sales from remedies for a particularly nasty flu and cold season.”

Saunders said that relatively few retail shoppers see CVS as a destination in its own right, even for categories like beauty, which are naturally allied to its proposition. The reason for this relative lack of interest is the weak retail proposition, according to Saunders.

“Our consumer research shows that CVS ranks well below its peers on attributes like store design, product displays, retail customer service, ease of shop, inspiration, and brand selection,” he said. (Click here for more.)

CVS said it will use a portion of its tax savings to invest in its employees, spending $425 million annually to improve employee wages and benefits, including a plan to subsidize employee healthcare costs. The company also expects to spend at least $275 million of the tax windfall on investments in the business, including data analytics, care management solutions and pilot programs.

Effective in April, the starting wage for an hourly CVS employee will be $11 an hour, and the company said it will be adjusting pay ranges and rates for retail pharmacy technicians, front-store associates and other hourly retail workers later this year.

In addition, CVS said it would absorb the 5% year-over-year increase in medical and prescription costs, making it so that its employees’ premiums won’t increase for the 2018-19 health plan year. The company also said it will create a paid parental leave program, making it so that full-time employees with a new child can take as much as four week’s paid leave, effective April 1.

“As part of our ongoing commitment to the patients, customers and communities we serve, we said that we would invest our tax savings back into our business, and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” said Larry Merlo, CVS Health president and CEO. “Today, we’re building on the investments we’ve been making in our employees, in their wages, benefits and career development.”

CVS adjusted its 2018 guidance to include the impact of the recent tax changes, which it expects will add $1.2 billion to its cash flow.

“With $1.2 billion in cash benefits from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, we will be able to make strategic investments in our business in 2018 to stimulate greater growth over the longer term, and our updated guidance reflects this,” CVS Health executive VP and CFO David Denton said. “These investments will accelerate our ability to continue to improve health outcomes and lower costs for patients. Additionally, we will spend at least half of the benefits on debt reduction as we look to lower our leverage ratio.”

As a result of its investments, CVS expects operating profit for the year to be in the range of down 1.5% to up 1.5%. Previously, it expected growth between 1% and 4%.

For the first quarter, CVS now anticipates operating profit growth between 0.5% and 4.5%.

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NPD: Sport leisure footwear dominates as athleisure rules the runway

BY Marianne Wilson

Performance and training footwear is so yesterday.

The U.S. athletic footwear industry grew by 2% in 2017, generating $19.6 billion in sales, according to global information company The NPD Group. Unit sales also grew by 2%. The average selling price remained flat, at $58.16. The women’s market grew the fastest, with sales up 5% over 2016. Men’s footwear, the largest segment of the market, grew its sales by 1%, as did the kid’s market.

“This was one of the most promotional years in decades for the athletic footwear industry,” said Matt Powell, senior industry advisor, sports, The NPD Group. “While promotions helped drive sales in 2017 and the product mix kept the average selling price flat, it was a double-edged sword for the industry, as its performance was not as healthy as in more recent years.”

Continuing its growth relative to the performance category, sport leisure is now the largest category in athletic footwear. Sport leisure captured $9.6 billion in sales in 2017 and grew 17%, while performance sales declined 10% to $7.4 billion, a rate that has accelerated for the last two years.

“I often get asked whether the bubble around leisure will burst anytime soon, and the answer is no,” Powell said. “There is not a single performance shoe in the top ten list for 2017, which illustrates the sportswear fashion cycle we are in. Athleisure rules the runway, and the line between what is an athletic shoe and a casual shoe continues to blur.”

The fastest-growing segments of the market were running inspired (up 39%) and casual athletic (up 24%) footwear. On the performance side, running shoe sales declined by 7%, and training sales were down 15%.

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Activist investor wants Supervalu to break up, consider sale

BY Marianne Wilson

Supervalu Inc., one of the largest grocery wholesalers and retailers in the U.S., is feeling the heat from Blackwells Capital LLC.

The activist investor, which owns approximately 4.35% of Supervalu’s stock, is planning a board fight and urging a breakup and potential sale of the company. Blackwell sent a blistering letter to the Supervalu board in which it claimed the company’s business model has failed to keep up with competitors and partners and that significant capital is trapped on the company’s balance sheet.

Blackwell had recommended a separation of the company’s wholesale and retail divisions. The wholesale business, which provides about 75% of Supervalu’s revenue and nearly all its operating profit, should be shopped to such potential buyers as SpartanNashCo, C&S or United Natural Foods, Blackwell said.

Blackwells intends to nominate director candidates to stand for election to Supervalu’s board at the company’s 2018 annual meeting, whose date has not yet been announced.

“In our view, the lackadaisical, misguided and value-destructive complacency of the company’s leadership necessitated our request for representation on the Board of Directors (the “Board”) for three Blackwells nominees, including myself, and the creation of a new Board committee, which would include the Blackwells nominees, to explore concrete measures of realizing shareholder value,” Jason Aintabi, managing partner at Blackwells Capital, stated in the letter.

The company rejected Blackwell’s request, leaving the investor with “no alternative but to run an election contest and give all shareholders an opportunity to vote for enhanced Board leadership and support a mandate to explore all alternatives to unlock value,’ it said.

Supervalu said in a statement that it has already “taken a number of critical steps to transform” its wholesale business, (including the recent acquisitions of Unified Grocers and Associated Grocers) and unlock its value for shareholders.

“Despite our efforts to reach a constructive path forward and to discuss overlapping objectives, Blackwells has decided to threaten an unnecessary and counterproductive proxy contest,” Supervalu stated.

In addition to its food distribution business, which serves 3,324 stores, Supervalu operates 213 traditional supermarkets operated under five retail banners in six geographic regions.

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