Lower gas prices no windfall for these retailers

Retailers feeling oil squeeze
Retailers feeling oil squeeze   

There is a downside to cheap oil prices—just ask the U.S. workers associated with the country's oil boom.

Yes, lower energy prices help many consumers by slashing spending at the gas pump and for heating homes—money these consumers presumably will spend on other goods.

But as oil prices fall, it becomes harder for energy companies to maintain profitable margins. In response, the exploration companies are already cutting back on their investments, which often means layoffs, as fewer hands are needed to work a declining number of rigs.

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That means within the oil patch, low energy prices may be more of a curse than a blessing for retailers who depend on energy industry workers to buy their products.

As the recent global glut of crude oil shows little signs of abating—inventories rose again to a record high—oil prices continue to tumble. West Texas Intermediate crude prices are down about 60 percent since June.

Stifel said the U.S. oil rig count is 24 percent below its October 2014 level. BHP Billiton said it plans to cut its rig operations by 40 percent this year. BP announced plans to cut capital expenditures by 13 percent in 2015. Numerous energy producers have announced layoffs, from the oil and gas division of General Electric to oil field services company Schlumberger.

Nomura and Wells Fargo analysts have detailed which retailers in their coverage areas may be most impacted if the U.S. oil production boom slows. The Nomura analysis includes the following nine states:Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Utah and Arkansas. The Wells Fargo analysis looks at the impact in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming.

A customer checks out at a Best Buy in Peoria, Ill.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A customer checks out at a Best Buy in Peoria, Ill.

While smaller in market cap than its department store competitors, Nomura retail analyst Bob Drbul notes Stage Stores is "particularly exposed to oil-sensitive regions, with more than 40 percent of its store base in the South Central region [of the U.S.], including around 250 stores in Texas."

Texas is the U.S. state most associated with the oil boom, but Drbul said, "the state is currently less economically reliant on oil than other less diversified state economies."

Wells Fargo analyst Paul Lejuez said retailer Boot Barn has 38 percent of its stores "in potentially affected states and a portion of its business caters directly to oil and gas workers."

However, JPMorgan retail analyst Matthew Boss told investors that at a breakfast meeting Boot Barn CEO James Conroy told an investor group the fear is overdone, explaining only 15 of 166 stores are "disproportionately reliant on oil," with no impact to date, and added that lower gas prices nationwide are benefiting their core, pickup-truck-driving consumer.

A quarter of Wal-Mart's U.S. stores are located in the nine oil-reliant states explored by Nomura, as well as a quarter of Ross Stores.

Piper Jaffray analyst Neely Tamminga lowered her "overweight" rating on Ross Stores shares to a "neutral" call "in view of what we believe may be increasingly negative data points around oil-driven economies—namely Texas." Fifteen percent of the off-price retailer's stores are in the Lone Star State. Plano, Texas-based department store J.C. Penney is only slightly less concentrated, with 22 percent of its locations in these regions.

A fifth of Target's stores are located in areas dependent on the oil economy and 18 percent of off-mall department store Kohl's locations. Sixteen percent of TJX Cos. and Macy's stores are in areas overexposed to oil economies, with a similar store-base concentration for higher-end department store Nordstrom.

But it's not just the U.S. regions analysts are watching when gauging the threat of a slowing oil boom. Areas of Canada that have seen economic benefits from the boom in recent years may soon be experiencing the opposite.

Wells Fargo points out that 21 percent of Vancouver-based Lululemon stores are in Canadian oil-reliant economies. Thirteen percent of children's clothing-maker Carter's store base is in Canada, followed by 9 percent of L Brands, American Eagle Outfitters and Michael Kors stores.