Will First-Quarter Earnings for These Retailers Set the Stage for the Rest of 2014?

With the winter season now a distant memory, spring and summer's warmer weather should spur consumer demand. Retailers that recently reported their first-quarter earnings showed mixed results as their businesses tackled a variety of external and internal issues. L Brands , American Eagle Outfitters , and Williams-Sonoma are three retailers working to finish 2014 with strong earnings that will move their businesses forward and reward investors with higher share prices. I'll take a look at each them to find out which is more likely to help investors profit by the end of the year.

L Brands
Shares of L Brands have risen about 2.6% since the first-quarter earnings release on May 21. The company's earnings per share for the first quarter ended May 3, 2014 increased 10% to $0.53 from $0.48 in the same period of 2013. Net income was $157 million compared to $142.5 million earned last year, while comp-store sales grew only 2% during the period .

L Brands' move to grow its Victoria's Secret brand beyond lingerie has had mixed results. During a recent retail and consumer conference, the company announced that it would stop selling apparel through its website and catalog due to a lack of sales. While workout apparel such as sports bras has been more successful, the brand is currently dealing with excess inventory as it overestimated how many of these items it would sell. Regardless, sticking with the product is a wise choice since it has been a successful extension from the core lingerie product line of Victoria's Secret.

The company's forecast calls for full-year 2014 EPS to range between $3.00-$3.15, a downward adjustment from the $3.00-$3.20 range previously reported. The company made this adjustment because it exited certain less-profitable categories within the Victoria's Secret direct and beauty business lines .

American Eagle Outfitters
American Eagle Outfitters' shares have been in free fall for the past 12 months, with their value dropping about 43%. The latest earnings report did not offer any relief. Total net revenue for the first quarter decreased 5% to $646 million from $679 million in the first quarter of last year. Consolidated comp-store sales decreased 10%, double the 5% decrease in the first quarter of 2013. Gross profit dropped 15% to $226 million and gross margin fell to 34.9%, due to lower comp sales and more markdowns which were offset by favorable merchandise and design costs. EPS was $0.02 versus adjusted EPS for of $0.18 for 2013's first quarter.

During the first-quarter earnings call, management mentioned its focus on reducing expenses and improving inventory management. It's also working on developing its online channel and international retail locations. As demand has slowed in the U.S., American Eagle is also looking at closing non-performing stores . The company finds itself in a similar situation as that of Urban Outfitters -- it has fallen out of favor with the fickle teen and young adult market, which seems more interested in the hipper and cheaper styles offered at stores like H&M and Forever 21.

While American Eagle is forced to evolve to attract consumers and improve its share value, shares of Williams-Sonoma have risen by 25% in the past 12 months. During the first quarter, net revenue rose by 9.7% to $974 million versus $888 million reported in the first quarter of last year. Comp-brand revenue growth rose by 10%; the top three brands that contributed to revenue growth during the period were West Elm, which grew 18.8%; Pottery Barn Teen, up by 12%; and Pottery Barn, up by 9.7%. Diluted EPS grew 20% to $0.48. Operating margin was 7.6% versus 7.2% in the first quarter of 2013 .

After Williams-Sonoma released its first-quarter earnings, its shares rose by 8%. Like L Brands, the company has exceeded market earnings estimates for the past four quarters. It's important to note that company insiders actively sold their shares in March 2014 and this was attributed to a slowdown in quarterly year-over-year revenue growth which has been going on since approximately November 2013. Uncertainty in the housing market may also be to blame for the recent insider selling and could also impact future earnings, as slower home purchases will result in fewer purchases of home-related products.

My Foolish conclusion
Of the companies mentioned, L Brands and Williams-Sonoma are the best bets for investors who are interested in the retail sector. L Brands' shares are a better value than those of its peers as the company has a P/E ratio of 17.64 and PEG ratio of 1.58, though its five-year growth rate estimate is 11% versus 13% for the industry.

Five-year growth estimates for Williams-Sonoma are in-line with those for the industry and the company has an average P/E ratio of 21 and PEG ratio of 1.59; this makes the shares a better value than those of its peers. American Eagle needs to prove that it's regained a sense of what its customers want; until that happens, it's very probable that the retailer's sales will continue to lag.

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The article Will First-Quarter Earnings for These Retailers Set the Stage for the Rest of 2014? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Eileen Rojas has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Urban Outfitters and Williams-Sonoma. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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