High-End Retail Sales Jump, and So Do Nordstrom's: Did You Miss All the Fun?

June's retail sales numbers were downright weird. The jump in same-store sales for discount leaders TJX (NYS: TJX) , parent of the Marshalls and T.J. Maxx shops, and Ross Stores (NAS: ROST) makes sense, given the shaky economic conditions. But how to explain the huge month that upscale retailers Nordstrom (NYS: JWN) and Saks (NYS: SKS) enjoyed? It amounts to this: America's financially healthy consumers (OK, wealthy folk) are still out there with their wallets wide open, and that's great news for Nordstrom investors.

Nordstrom's 8.1% increase in June sales for stores open at least a year was an outstanding, and somewhat surprising, result. Saks' 7% increase was a close second in the "how in the world did that happen?" sweepstakes. Ironically, both figures were announced only a week after a Citigroup analyst downgraded both stocks on concerns about consumers digging deep for higher-end purchases. Sure, that made sense at the time, and Nordstrom's stock dropped about 2%. Yet here we are.

So what now?
Now that the stock price has jumped about 8% since late June, it'd be natural to assume Nordstrom is a bit pricy at current levels. And based on early trading this week, there are at least a few investors of the same mind, as the stock trades down slightly. Either that or a few folks are taking some short-term profits. But before you shake your head and ruminate over what might have been, take heart. Nordstrom remains one of the best options in the industry, and as we head into the back-to-school shopping season, Q3 is likely to continue what has been a surprisingly solid 2012.

A few numbers
Compared with TJX and Ross, Nordstrom is a downright steal by most measures, trading at a steep discount to the low-cost retail leaders. Of course, the companies live in slightly different consumer worlds, so let's compare apples to apples instead. Saks and Macy's (NYS: M) are two industry stalwarts that fall into the Nordstrom mold.

Saks in particular has caught the eye of investors recently, jumping about 15% from the company's June 27 close of $9.72 a share. Though relatively inexpensive based on the stock price versus sales, Saks is trading at nearly 25 times earnings, has profit margins of just 2.48%, and offers no dividend. Hmm. These results compare with Nordstrom's 16 times earnings, a net profit margin of 6.28%, and a healthy 2.1% dividend. The margins in particular are impressive, as these are often seen as a measure of management's ability to conduct business in an efficient manner. Of course, with Nordstrom, the higher-end apparel and associated goodies the retailer offers also positively affect margins.

So, what about Macy's, you ask? Same-store sales in June increased, but the mere 1.2 % improvement wasn't enough to appease analysts or investors. The stock remains the cheapest of the cheap at just over 11 times earnings, profit margins are a not-too-bad 4.76%, and the 2.35% dividend is the highest of the high-end retailers. Add to these quarter-over-quarter increases in revenues as well as operating and net income, and Macy's offers some real upside. The company continues to lag both Nordstrom and Saks in sales growth, though, so you'll need to exercise some patience.

When you take it all in - consistently strong sales results, the relative value compared with other high-end retailers, and a management team that rarely disappoints, all signs point to Nordstrom.

Of course, there is no shortage of retail options for those betting on consumers for the balance of 2012 and beyond. For one of the best investment alternatives the market has to offer, take a look at our special free report "The Motley Fool's Top Stock Pick of 2012."

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributor Tim Brugger currently holds no securities positions, including any mentioned in this article. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool owns shares of Citigroup and has a disclosure policy.

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