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Retailers Get Stingy With Data

J. C. Penney says the tumultuous economy is making it impossible to predict earnings over the next year. Macy’s asserts that providing monthly sales information is too distracting and confusing. And Starbucks argues that annual profit estimates are unnecessary.

In American retailing, less is suddenly more — at least when it comes to giving investors the sort of financial information they have long expected from companies.

JC Penney
JC Penney

Faced with an economic slump, a growing number of national retailers are abandoning the longstanding tradition of reporting monthly store sales and forecasting annual profits.

The stores say that they are eliminating outdated practices that encourage short-term decision-making and can confuse investors.

But many Wall Street analysts and investors, who rely on these numbers to gauge a company’s health and the mood of the American consumer, are crying foul. The motive for providing less financial insight, they suspect, is to avoid issuing embarrassing numbers in the middle of a recession, numbers that can drive down a company’s stock price.

So far this year, Starbucks, Macy’s, CVS Caremark and Jos. A. Bank have ditched one or both of the financial reporting practices that were once standard in retailing.

And on Wednesday, J. C. Penney joined the list, saying it would stop offering annual profit estimates, known in the industry as guidance, at least for now. (It will still provide monthly sales and quarterly profit estimates.)

Myron E. Ullman, the chief executive of J. C. Penney, said that with the housing market in turmoil and gas prices surging, “there is not enough visibility to give something meaningful.”

The analysts who track J. C. Penney and the rest of the retail business can barely contain their frustration with all the lip zipping. “Withholding information is not what investors want,” said Bill Dreher, a longtime retail analyst at Deutsche Bank Securities. “They want clarity.”

A tough economy, Mr. Dreher added, “is a time to be more communicative, not a time to deprive us of guidance or clamp down on information.”

Though they have no legal obligation to do so, most publicly traded retail companies divulge their monthly sales performance and offer an estimate of their annual profits, with the figures becoming guideposts for Wall Street, economists and investors.

The profit forecasts allow stores to set reasonable expectations for investors, and minimize the chances for surprises, which Wall Street tends to dislike.

The monthly sales figures from retailers are especially valuable to economists, because they provide a regular snapshot of consumer finances and confidence. The first Thursday of every month, dozens of chains disclose how much sales rose or fell at stores open at least one year, a figure known as same-store sales. “It’s a barometer of the economy and a benchmark for the industry,” said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group.

But monthly sales have become controversial within retailing. Stores say they encourage employees to make decisions that bolster sales within a given month, even if they may hurt the company over time.

And some retailers argue that frequent quirks in the calendar can skew the numbers from one month to the next, creating a false impression of strong or weak performance.

That is what happened at chains like Macy’s during the 2007 holiday season. Because Thanksgiving occurred a week earlier than normal last year, one week of holiday shopping shifted from December to November. As a result, reported sales surged in November and plunged in December. Macy’s sales, for example, rose 13.4 percent in November 2007, but fell 7.9 percent in December. When the latter figure came out, Macy’s stock fell more than 6 percent in two days.

Despite warnings about the calendar shift, many investors were surprised by the December numbers. Executives at Macy’s found this agonizing — and said it contributed to their decision to stop reporting monthly store sales after January 2008.

“The numbers are increasingly confusing because of the calendar shifts,” said Jim Sluzewski, a spokesman for Macy’s. He added that the monthly numbers encourage “a short-term orientation, which is not the way to run a business.”

But analysts suspect another motivation for Macy’s: weak performance. The department store chain, which has experienced ups and downs since its merger with May Department Stores in 2005, reported sales declined in seven out of the last nine months that it provided such figures.

It was not until Starbucks ran into business problems, in January, that it stopped offering annual profit forecasts and same-store sales for its coffee shops.

With the chain experimenting with a variety of changes, like closing stores and dropping warm breakfast sandwiches, the chief executive, Howard Schultz, said monthly sales “will not be an effective indicator of our performance.”

Mr. Schultz said he would consider offering a quarterly same-store sales figure, but no decision has been made so far.

“The less said the better,” said Mr. Niemira, of the shopping council, summing up the new prevailing wisdom.

But clamming up can backfire for companies. In mid-2006, as the housing market began to slip, Home Depot said it would no longer disclose same-store sales, which it issued every quarter alongside its earnings.

The company said the figure was becoming less relevant, since Home Depot was branching out into new businesses, like a supply division focused on lumber and cement.

But investors balked. Soon, Home Depot reversed itself and began offering same-store sales figures.

So far, there is no sign that Macy’s, Starbucks or J. C. Penney will face similar revolts. But analysts are making their displeasure known.

“Small investors will be hurt because they will not have as much information,” said Walter Loeb, president of Loeb Associates, a retail consulting firm.

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