Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Dana Telsey v. Warren Buffett on Wal-Mart

Yesterday on one of CNBC's morning programs, retail analyst Dana Telsey gave a wonderfully informed, sensible analysis of Target as preferential to Wal-Mart. It happened to coincide with an excellent interview of the company's leaders in that day's Wall Street Journal.

As is often done, the network placed a Wal-Mart booster opposite Ms. Telsey. All he could really do, though, was reiterate that he hoped Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott might be fired by year's end, leading the stock to be 'value priced' for some sort of hoped-for turnaround.

As it happens, Warren Buffett had recently (perhaps at his Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting last weekend?) proclaimed himself a buyer of Wal-mart stock.

Thus, Mark Haines of CNBC ceaselessly hectored Dana Telsey with comments like, 'so you think Buffett's wrong,' and 'so you're disagreeing with Buffett' throughout pauses in her remarks.

Hey, Buffett has made his share of mistakes- US Air and Salomon Brothers, to name a few. I believe Mark Haines is wrong to deify the guy. In fact, yesterday on CNBC, one critic described Buffett as basically over the hill, with less-than-stellar recent returns.

He characterized the current search for a new CIO as essentially much ado about nothing, counseling viewers to find the 'next Warren Buffett.' With many billions of dollars to allocate, the commentator (I wish I could recall his name) rather irreverently, but, I believe, correctly suggested that Buffett isn't the same as he was when he was younger, with less money to invest, and that his successor will be unlikely to keep the assets around for long.

With that in mind, I pulled the Yahoo-sourced chart on the left (please click on chart to see a larger version) comparing Berkshire vs. the S&P500 for the past five year. The firm appears to pay no dividends on its stock. Thus, this price chart is essentially a picture of total returns as well. Frankly, I was stunned at what I saw. Berkshire has not significantly outperformed the index over the entire period. For most of the years, it tracks nearly on top of the S&P, with a less pronounced dip in 2002, and a less pronounced rise in 2004. Lately, it's paced the index. Not exactly the kind of return performance that would draw attention, were it any other company than the one Buffett operates.

Back to Target vs. Buffett's pick, Wal-Mart. Dana Telsey noted that a buy of Wal-Mart is for turnaround, but that Target is poised to perform much better. On that note, the Journal interview revealed a stunningly smart, confident team of executives who don't look at their business as cost-cutting discount retail, but, rather, designer-brand and unique-retail experience marketing to selected customers.

Furthermore, they regularly take a common consumer problem and make it part of "The Big Idea" contest. To quote the article, Michael Francis, EVP of Marketing said,

"I challenge my team to solve a problem or see things a new way. We've done everything from what's the next consumable product that we would like to repackage to what product in your pantry frustrates you the most. The winner gets a cash prize, recognition and sometimes we create the product or campaign.

I have people who are brilliant all over the country and they feed in ideas on a regular basis. I probably have about a dozen of them- trend people, movie people, advertising people. We pay them. And we get monthly missives- emails or letters.....it's people who we trust, who we know have the right taste level, who understand our brand."

On that subject of brand, CEO Bob Ulrich said,

"We created the whole trend of designers making products for discounters, starting with architect Michael Graves in 1999....These things keep evolving. You can't just be unique in one category. You can't be really mundane in small electrics if you're trying to be innovative in textiles. You can't be really forward in linens and beat down in shoes, so you have to start to get more consistency across the board....our guests, who are on average about 20% more affluent, more highly educated, come from more sophisticated areas."

And, again, Michael Francis, on brand advertising and promotion,

"I don't want to be on a billboard along some freeway in some dense metropolitan area. I want to be where there is a smart, sophisticated audience, who's experiencing that venue for reasons other than brand awareness......(the buzz is) a powerful, powerful component of what we do. Buzz has had an astonishingly important ability to amplify our entire marketing message."

What struck me about these comments in the Journal interview is how much Target's management and strategy is about consumer needs satisfaction and problem solution, not just logistical cost-cutting. They practice a flair for dramatic, exciting retailing that Wal-Mart never had. So when the latter saturated its market segment, going upmarket, as I wrote in a post in late 2005, was very difficult, if not impossible (as I predicted). Target, on the other hand, has kept a finger on the pulse of its more upscale market segment, and continued to give them reasons to return to its stores.

Thus, as the Yahoo-source price chart for Target, Wal-Mart and the S&P500 on the left shows, Target has outperformed Wal-Mart over the past five years. However, even Target has not quite surpassed the index, which explains why it's not on my equity portfolio selection lists. Further, Target seemed to be experiencing similar performance pattern as Wal-mart up until late 2004, when it finally deviated from Wal-Mart's downward path, and began to soar. Still, in those two years, Target has only just would have outpeformed the index.

So, personally, I'd side with Telsey, although Target is not in my selection list. I've seen Telsey for years on retail and luxury beat, and she appears to know her stuff. Combining Buffett's recent performance, and the pictures of Target's and Wal-Mart's recent performances, along with information about Target's more consumer-focused strategy, I would be inclined to back Dana Telsey's prediction that Target will continue to outperform Wal-Mart in the years ahead.

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