Looking for Retail Clarity in Uncertain Times


July sales figures have started coming out for a number of the big retailers, but the results have only clouded the already hazy picture of retail's immediate future. While July is typically a slow month, we can learn a lot about what sort of trend companies can expect later this year by looking at sales figures. The lead-up to the holiday season is especially important, as low summer sales can leave typically profitable racks filled with leftover and discounted merchandise. Even through the fog, two companies are emerging as clear winners, let's see why.

The biggest losers
2012 has been a confusing year for consumers, making for an uncertain market for retailers. Unemployment has dug its feet in at just above 8%, with the latest report showing no indication of a major move anytime soon. Consumers have received no clear signs of what's coming next for the economy, and confidence levels have continued to bump along, now up only slightly for the year. Even July's unexpected jump in confidence came with no change in June's personal spending.

This means that a lot of retailers have had weak years so far. Recently, Coach (NYS: COH) announced its worries over macroeconomic events and the negative impact it expects to weather for the rest of the year. The high-end retailer reported a 24% increase in revenue last quarter but warned that next year would be "an investment year." The stock plunged on the announcement, dropping nearly 20% the next day.

Although the fall wasn't nearly as hard, Abercrombie & Fitch (NYS: ANF) took a similar stumble following its lackluster quarterly update. The retailer issued a revised earnings forecast, calling for second-quarter earnings per share between $0.15 and $0.18. This fell well short of analysts' hopes for $0.32 per share. The underlying problem seems to be a fall in same-store sales, which are down 10% from this time last year. The stock fell more than 10% on the announcement.

The big winners
But as I said, the outlook is foggy. Along with the losers, we've seen some winners, adding to the confusion. Clothing retailer Limited Brands (NYS: LTD) emerged as one of the clear victors in July. The company owns the Limited and Victoria's Secret brands, and both performed well last month. In July, same-store sales were up 12% across the brands, closing the quarter out up 8%. The results pleased the company so much that it announced a special dividend of $1 per share to be paid in addition to its regular dividend.

The only struggle for the company continues to be its inability to squeeze growth out of the La Senza lingerie brand. Same-store sales fell 5% for La Senza, slightly offsetting the 12% growth earned by Victoria's Secret. The company has tried to fight this decline by closing underperforming La Senza stores, shutting down 33 so far this year.

If the Limited's performance came as a surprise, imagine the shock upon seeing Gap's (NYS: GPS) July figures. The company was expected to grow same-store sales by a comfortable 4% in July; instead, sales skyrocketed 10%. Gap also reforecast its second-quarter earnings, placing the new figure between $0.47 and $0.48 per share. That's more than a 20% increase over analysts' predictions. The strong growth has been attributed to the company's recent fashion updates as it works its way back to being chic.

The bottom line
With the uncertainty of the economy and the likelihood that nothing much will change until after election season is over, it can be hard for investors to get a feel for what's happening in retail. Monthly sales figures give us a great way to understand the current trends, and because they come out right at the end of the month, there's very little intel lost to lag. While not all retailers report monthly figures, those that do can help guide investors across the whole sector.

Of the two winners, Gap continues to be my choice. The company has realized that it's not the brand it used to be and that some things need to change if it wants to reach the top of the pile again. A focus on fashion and streamlined operations are really making a change for Gap. But as much as I like Gap, it didn't make the Fool's list of "Middle-Class Millionaire-Makers." These are three companies you already know and love, flying under Wall Street's radar. The free report tells you why they'll do well, and you can get all the details today.

The article Looking for Retail Clarity in Uncertain Times originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributorAndrew Marderdoes not own any of the companies mentioned in this article.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Coach. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

Copyright © 1995 - 2012 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.