Can J.C. Penney Company, Inc. (JCP) Turn Things Around? – Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (WMT), Target Corporation (TGT)

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I thought Ron Johnson was an excellent hire when he took over as CEO of J.C. Penney Company, Inc.(NYSE:JCP). I never bought into the idea that he was the savior of retail, but I didn’t think the company needed one. J.C. Penney just needed a change. And since he was coming from Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), I thought his winning persona was going to be one additional asset to the company. Unfortunately, one year later, investors are still waiting for that winning formula to take shape.

J.C. Penney Company, Inc. (NYSE:JCP)How much worse can things get?
Not much was expected from the fourth-quarter report. The Street was still hoping to give J.C. Penney Company, Inc.(NYSE:JCP) the benefit of the doubt in some areas. However, in every aspect, the company managed to answer: “How much worse can things get?” Same-store sales, or comps, the most important retail metric that tracts sales performance of stores opened at least one year, dropped roughly 32% year over year. This was 6% worse than Street estimates.

By comparison, for the third, second, and first quarters, comps dropped 26.1%, 21.7%, and 19% respectively. Essentially, fourth-quarter comps were 10% worse than the average loss of the previous three quarters. Johnson has been unable to stop this bleeding. And the fourth-quarter loss widened to $552 million, or $2.51 per share, compared to a loss of $87 million, or $0.41 per share a year ago.

Full-year results weren’t any better. Net loss reached just under $1 billion at $985 million, or $4.49 per share, compared with a loss of $152 million last year. But excluding charges and other items related to the company’s transformation, the loss narrowed to $766 million. The company has been making significant investments to redesign its stores and increase foot traffic. It doesn’t seem as if these investments have paid off, however, with revenue plummeting 25% year over year.

Were expectations too high?
It seems reasonable to think that perhaps the Street was expecting much better performance from J.C. Penney Company, Inc.(NYSE:JCP). And if so, what was the cause of such optimism? Granted, the retail sector has been performing much better lately, especially discounters like Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT) and Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT). But the Street has also seen struggles from the likes of Kohl’s Corporation (NYSE:KSS) and Sears Holdings Corporation (NASDAQ:SHLD). And it’s not as if J.C. Penney had shown a strong record of performance.

It’s possible that the Street was looking at recent performances from Wal-Mart, which always attracts a lot of attention. It’s true that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT) did well recently, but 4% year-over-year revenue growth arrived below consensus estimates. Earnings were better than expected, but boosted by a favorable tax rate, growing 11% year over year to $1.67 per share. Still, these results were solid, given the soft macro environment. But it also underscores some missed opportunities by J.C. Penney.

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