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 user 2009-08-19 at 11:07:04 am Views: 35
  • #22370
    Only the strong will survive
    Former Staples CEO Tom Stemberg talks about the state of back-to-school shopping and what’s in store for merchants.
    YORK — The number of people who have created entirely new categories
    in retailing can probably be counted on one hand.There’s Sam Walton,
    whose Wal-Mart Stores were an early pioneer of discount shopping, and
    Leslie Wexner, who conceived of the “specialty” store with his Limited
    chain. Add to that list Tom Stemberg, the father of the office supply
    superstore.Back in 1986, when Stemberg drew up a business plan for
    Staples , most companies bought their office supplies from mom and pop
    shops. Today, with $23 billion in sales, Staples dominates the category
    it helped create.

    After 16 years as Staples’s CEO and an
    additional three as chairman, Stemberg — in 2005 — joined the venture
    capital firm Highland Capital Partners, where he serves today as
    general partner of its $300 million Consumer Fund. His mission: to
    provide hot new retail concepts with the early stage financing that was
    so critical to Staples’ success. Stemberg talked to Fortune recently
    about the art of investing in retail, as well as the upcoming
    back-to-school shopping season.

    What types of companies does the Highland Consumer Fund invest in?

    focus on retail and consumer product companies that are in their early
    lifecycle. The first company we invested in was Lululemon Athletica
    (the maker of yoga and other workout clothes). We also own a stake in
    StriVectin (the anti-wrinkle cream) and we just made an investment in
    Pinkberry (the frozen yogurt chain).

    You must be crazy to invest in retail right now considering how many retail enterprises are going out of business.

    It would be easier if the economy were running on all cylinders. But there are still companies that are doing well.

    What signs are you seeing that consumer spending has bottomed?

    good thing about retailing is that you get a report card every day in
    terms of sales figures. I look at sales at stores open at least a year
    – both for the companies in which we have an investment and for other
    retailers as well. The sales figures have turned slightly positive –
    or at least less negative — than they were a year ago.

    How do you think the back-to-school season will play out?

    going to be better than people had feared, but not nearly as robust as
    some of the stock prices would suggest.If back-to-school sales are
    soft, does that mean retailers should expect a tepid holiday shopping
    season?I don’t think there is a big correlation between back-to-school
    and holiday spending. Back-to-school is necessary spending. People buy
    what they need — shoes, notebooks — and they want to pay as a little
    as possible for these items.Christmas shopping is way more
    discretionary and emotional. I think Christmas spending will be
    stronger than back-to-school spending. As long as unemployment, the
    stock market, and housing prices hold steady — and inflation doesn’t
    come into play — the psychology at Christmas will be far better than
    it is today.

    Which retailers stand to win and which stand to lose?
    strong will get stronger, and the weak will get weaker. Companies that
    are financially stronger will be able to invest more right now in
    merchandise and services. In office products, which is an area I happen
    to know well, Staples will continue to take share from Office Depot 
    and OfficeMax .

    That makes sense. But what about a company
    like Best Buy? It’s outlived most of its competitors, and yet is still
    facing headwinds

    Best Buy  is getting a market share bounce
    from the closure of Circuit City, but it’s still in a market that is
    not doing that well. You just don’t have to buy a new $2,000 widescreen
    TV right now.

    What other businesses would you stay away from right now?

    don’t want to be selling $10,000 diamond rings or $5,000 snowmobiles. I
    don’t want to be in any business where the purchase can be deferred.

    Are there any silver linings out there?

    look at the Sunday circulars, and promotional activity is extremely
    aggressive for the back-to-school season. So there is some concern
    about margin pressure. But that said, retailers have dramatically
    reduced expenses and have very lean inventories. If there is any
    tailwind whatsoever in sales, they will be way more profitable than
    people expect.