There Could Be Lots of Disappointment Ahead for Big Lots

This is one of those eye-brow raising moments for Big Lots . In its most recent report, it seemed as if the company couldn't get a single thing right. Meanwhile, much larger rivals Wal-Mart and Target appear to be celebrating like it is New Year's Eve already.

Big Lots' results
Big Lots reported fiscal third-quarter results on Dec. 5. Net sales inched up 1% to $1.152 billion, but that seems to be where the good news ends. Same-store sales slipped 2.5%. Adjusted net loss from continuing operations ballooned 47% to $9.1 million, or a loss of $0.16 per share. This compares to guidance of $0.05-$0.13, so it was substantially worse than the guided range.

Big Lots lowered its overall 2013 guidance for adjusted consolidated income from operations to a range of $2.40-$2.55, down from $2.80-$3.05 just one quarter prior. It smells like something went very sour.

Big Lots also announced that it plans to close down its Canadian operations. Canadian results, just like the U.S., were a huge disappointment. Big Lots had guided for $40-$43 million in sales for Canada in the third quarter. Instead, sales came in at $38.3 million. The layman's version of the disappointment, according to management, went something along the lines of "We tried to revitalize it. It was too hard. We failed. It's not worth trying anymore."

Canada in free fall?
Back in the Aug. 30 conference call when that guidance was given, CFO Tim Johnson stated:

From a Canada perspective, Q2 was in line with guidance. However, during the quarter, sales did get a little bit softer than we would have expected. And into Q3, again, acknowledging those trends, Q3, the sales number is lower than we would have been giving 60 or 90 days ago potentially.

It is almost as if every 60 or 90 days the Canadian sales expectations and reality are imploding.

Dec. 6 conference call
During the conference call, CEO David Campisi in part blamed "macro factors and government uncertainty" for the quarter's disappointment. He did own up to the fact that the quarter and outlook were not satisfactory, but he expects that the company will be leaner and more profitable once the Canadian side is closed.

Then it went from bad to worse. When an analyst stated, "It sounds like you're down double digits in the month of November," Johnson gave a bit of a long-winded response about how a weak November was always baked into the company's guidance because the calendar shift in the holiday shopping season caused a shift of sales out of November and into December. It all logically makes sense. Then again, Johnson also stated that Thanksgiving week was flat to slightly up compared to last year, while other retailers are flourishing.

Black Friday weekend for Wal-Mart and Target 
Unlike Big Lots, Wal-Mart was quite proud of its Black Friday week, and issued a press release proclaiming record-breaking results. CEO Bill Simon stated, "Our Black Friday events were bigger, better, faster, cheaper and safer than ever." This was despite Wal-Mart being up against a terrific Thanksgiving comparison last year when 22 million customers shopped at Wal-Mart. Where was the big excitement at Big Lots?

Meanwhile at Target, the lines were literally out the door. On Thanksgiving morning, its website saw twice as many orders as it saw last year. Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Jones stated, "Starting in the early morning hours of Thanksgiving Day on, through our Thanksgiving night store openings, traffic across all channels was strong." Was nobody lined up at Big Lots because they were all at Wal-Mart and Target?

Foolish final thoughts
The first analyst comment in the Q&A session put it well. Paul Trussell said, "You gave a lot of information there, a lot of changes." Sometimes change is good, but for a nearly half-century-old department store chain, change can be bad for investors as it means uncertainty. Fools should consider waiting on the sidelines until Big Lots figures itself out a bit better and can give more reliable guidance. After all, if Big Lots' management is struggling to see a couple of months into the future, it may be nearly impossible for investors.

Will Wal-Mart fall before Big Lots does?
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