As RadioShack teeters on the verge of bankruptcy, one portfolio manager is making the case that another struggling retail icon will not follow in the electronics chain's footsteps.
According to Don Ingham, a director at Tenth Avenue Holdings private investment firm, investors are looking at Sears all wrong.
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Instead of viewing the retailer's deteriorating stores as a reason to be bearish on the stock, they should be seen as a prudent decision that Sears will focus its investments on the future of retail, which is taking place online, Ingham said.
What's more, he argues that the company's loyalty program—a frequent target of criticism, as it offers members even steeper discounts without charging a fee—will help it retain customers as it shrinks its store count.
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"We're fully aware that if you look at it from a traditional perspective, as a traditional retailer ... it does basically look like it's going out of business," Ingham said. "[But] I do think that there is a profitable configuration of the assets."
Ingham, whose investment firm owns shares in Sears, said accelerated store closings make the company's financials look much worse than they are, as they have to ramp up spending to shutter the locations.
But that temporary pain is necessary for the company to achieve long-term stability, Ingham said. And because the retailer has a lot of work to do to right-size its fleet—which included more than 1,800 domestic locations as of its most recent earnings report—spending cash to upgrade stores would be money poorly spent.
"They know they need less square footage," he said. "That's why they've invested less in what they know ultimately may no longer be relevant."
As Sears shrinks its physical footprint, Ingham said its same-store sales should turn positive within the next few quarters, as sales comparisons at physical stores will be derived from its stronger locations. He added that the Shop Your Way rewards program, whose members accounted for 72 percent of eligible sales in the most recent quarter, has created a more loyal shopper base.
That should serve as a buffer in markets where it decides to shutter bricks-and-mortar locations. It's particularly important in the context of industry research, which has shown that retailers' sales tend to be highest in markets where they have both a physical and an online presence.
Sears already has a leg up in its online business among department stores. It ranked fifth on Internet Retailer's 2014 list of the top 10 online retailers in the U.S. by revenue, beating out both Macy's and J.C. Penney.
"With the Shop Your Way [program] they've been able to retain a portion of their customers," Ingham said.
Sears is also considering converting hundreds of its stores into a real estate investment trust, through which it would lease up to 1,400 locations. Ingham said this tactic could provide the retailer with enough capital to complete its transformation.
Ingham's analysis stands in stark opposition to the opinions of many in the industry. For their part, Sears bears have argued for months that the company's money-boosting maneuvers do nothing but delay its demise. They're quick to point out that the company continues to bleed money, and is losing relevancy against competitors in nearly every major category.
Despite his more optimistic outlook, Ingham acknowledged that it will likely take several more years for Sears to return to profitability.
"The reality is the world has changed," he said. "They need to adapt."
According to Retail Metrics, Sears hasn't posted a profit since the fourth quarter of 2012. In the most recent quarter, it reported an adjusted loss of $296 million; that was an improvement from the same period of the prior year, when it had a loss of $310 million on an adjusted basis.
"During the quarter, we unveiled or expanded several integrated retail customer initiatives, which helped drive online and multichannel sales," CEO Eddie Lampert said in December. "Our members are responding to our transformation, and we are encouraged by the year-over-year domestic adjusted EBITDA trends, which mark a positive departure from the prior six quarters."
Although Sears and RadioShack are often lumped together, Sears—which owns a hefty amount of its real estate—has more financial flexibility than RadioShack, and is therefore in a less dire situation.