FINANCE

Kroger—and entire U.S. grocery sector—hurtling towards a ‘day of reckoning’

We have mixed views about Kroger and this latest set of numbers does very little to change our position. Overall, the results are far from fantastic and continue to show pressure on top line growth and a significant drag on the bottom line. That said, the company is innovative and is putting in place a number of plays – from digital solutions to meal kits – that will allow it to generate some market share growth over the medium term.

The question is whether such growth will be profitable or whether it will come at the expense of the bottom line. For all Kroger’s enthusiasm around the online market and its crowing about 60% digital sales growth, we remain very skeptical about whether this push will be margin enhancing. In our view, online grocery has yet to prove itself as a viable business model. Even in the U.K. – where the market is far more advanced and where the higher population density is more favorable to distribution – online has not been particularly helpful to the bottom line. If anything, it has eroded profits and put margins under severe pressure.

This does not mean that Kroger is wrong to invest in digital. Indeed, we see its partnership with Ocado as appropriate and necessary. There is no doubt that consumer interest in online grocery is growing and Kroger needs to play strongly in this space if it is to defend its market share. However, given the unfavorable metrics around online, we believe that Kroger needs to counterbalance its digital efforts with growth strategies in other, more profitable parts of the business.

One area in need of desperate investment is stores. While Kroger has a very strong network of shops, we remain broadly unimpressed by the quality of its estate. Many stores, especially regional banners, feel run down and dispiriting. They are not great places to shop and they do little to showcase Kroger’s range in an effective way. As more and more money goes into digital we fear that investment in stores will fall further and further behind. Given the importance of stores to the consumer and the investments of other players – like Aldi, Lidl, Target, Walmart, and Amazon – in physical grocery, this position is simply not viable. Longer term, it will create pain on both the top and bottom lines.

In this regard, we are particularly worried by the statement from CEO Rodney McMullen that he sees Kroger moving to a company with more “asset-light” partnerships. This mantra was also one peddled by Eddie Lampert, who used it to justify the deterioration in stores. This did not work well for Sears and ultimately, we do not believe it will work out well for Kroger unless the company comes up with a more balanced growth strategy.

To be fair, these issues and dilemmas are not exclusive to Kroger. In our view, the entire U.S. grocery sector is hurtling towards a day of reckoning. Changing shopping habits, the rise of digital, more competition, and increased price pressures are all going to crimp margins, store productivity, profits, and will reduce returns on investment. There is simply no avoiding this pain and ultimately the battle will be about surviving rather than thriving. Kroger will survive, but we question whether it will thrive.

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Sears chairman Eddie Lampert submits bid to buy bankrupt chain

BY Marianne Wilson

The drawn-out saga of embattled Sears Holdings Corp. may have entered its final chapter.

In a move to save the bankrupt retailer, ESL Investments, the hedge fund run by Sears chairman Eddie Lampert, submitted a $4.6 billion bid on Thursday to purchase its remaining stores, which total about 500, headquarters, distribution locations, as well as Sears brands Kenmore and DieHard. (Sears filed for bankruptcy in October.)

The acquisition would be via a newly-formed company, called Newco. The offer includes up to $950 million in cash through an asset-based loan facility, a credit bid of about $1.8 billion, $500 million in Newco notes, cash, and/or waiver or assignment of deficiency claims, rollover of about $271 million in cash collateral from the LC Facility. It also includes the assumption of about $1.1 billion in assumed liabilities that include gift cards and points from Sears’ loyalty program.

ESL submitted its bid in a letter to Lazard Frères & Co., the investment banker for Sears debtors. In the letter, ESL wrote that its proposed business plan “envisages significant strategic initiatives and investments in a right-sized network of large format and small retail stores, digital assets and interdependent operating businesses.”

“ESL believes that a future for Sears as a going concern is the only way to preserve tens of thousands of jobs and bring continued economic benefits to the many communities across the United States that are touched by Sears and Kmart stores,” ESL stated. “We are prepared to move as quickly as possible,”

The bid assumes that about 50,000 employees would continue working for the company and a reinstatement of the severance program. Sears filed for bankruptcy in October.

“As always, we remain enthusiastic about the continuation of Sears as a going concern and its future potential,” ESL wrote.

CNBC reported that a “stalking horse bidder” will be named on Dec. 15 in bankruptcy court. That bidder will set the floor for other potential offers.

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C.Kasabian says:
Dec-08-2018 08:56 am

I hope this works. Sears has been around to long to let it go. I know its expensive but the Sears Catalog was always a huge part of Sears. Bring it back.

G.Watters says:
Dec-06-2018 07:28 pm

OMG, does anyone not believe that this was all part of a master plan?Seriuosly, Eddie the destroyer is now Eddie the saviour? Go back to his early Sears Canada involvement, quite a predictable pattern.

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Measure to ban cashless stores advances in New Jersey

BY Marianne Wilson

Some lawmakers in New Jersey want to ban stores that refuse to accept cash.

A measure that would require all brick-and-mortar retailers to accept cash was unanimously approved by the N.J. Senate Commerce Committee and will now go before the full state Senate. The bill, which was overwhelming approved by the state Assembly in June, excludes retailers inside airports from the cash requirement, and also excludes sales made online and by telephone or mail. New York City and Philadelphia are also reportedly considering banning cashless stores.

Under the N.J. bill, businesses would receive a $2,500 fine for a first offense, and $5,000 for a second. Subsequent violations would fall under the consumer fraud act, which can carry penalties of up to $20,000.

Critics of stores that don’t accept cash say such businesses effectively discriminate against poor customers who might have credit cards or even bank accounts and older consumers who are wary about using credit cards or mobile commerce.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Amazon and some other major retailers have raised concerns about the legislation. Amazon operates a cashless Amazon Books store at Garden State Plaza mall, in Paramus, N.J.

Only one state — Massachusetts— has a law banning cashless stores.

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