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Cramer: The bulls are right about Ollie's Bargain Outlet, but the bears may have a point

  • "Mad Money" host Jim Cramer unpacked the bull and bear theses for Ollie's Bargain Outlet Holdings to determine which one is worth buying.
  • Cramer was mostly behind the bullish analysis, but acknowledged that one bearish Citigroup analyst may have a point about the discount retailer's stock.

Hardly anything has made CNBC's Jim Cramer want to reconsider his bullish thesis on discount retailer Ollie's Bargain Outlet Holdings since he recommended it in early 2016.

"Ollie's, both the store and the stock, [is] en fuego. And it makes sense. After all, this company is an off-price retailer, and that's the best acting portion [of retail]. It means when other merchants are struggling, Ollie's comes in and buys their excess inventory for very low prices," the "Mad Money" host said. "Very often, the rest of retail's pain is their gain."

With shares up nearly 63 percent year-to-date, it's hard to deny that Ollie's own version of "buy low, sell high" is working, Cramer said.

Merchants need to sell their excess inventory in order to get the financing for new products, and that's where Ollie's bargain comes in: the company buys the excess and sells it for more, still at a drastically reduced cost to the consumer.

"In a way, these off-price retailers are like scavengers," Cramer said. "When all sorts of big national chains are shutting down locations left and right, like they're doing right now, they generate a ton of closeout inventory. Ollie's feasts on that stuff."

That's why the "Mad Money" host was so surprised when a Citigroup analyst initiated coverage on Ollie's with a "sell" rating, slapping a $39 price target on the $46 stock.

The bearish note took guts in a landscape where most analysts still have "buy" ratings on Ollie's, Cramer said, unpacking both arguments to get a better picture of the debate.

"The bullish thesis has been the dominant theme here ever since Ollie's came public, and that was back in the summer of 2015," Cramer said.

Bullish analysts favored Ollie's off-price business model, which offered consumers deeper discounts than competitors, a "treasure hunt experience" in stores and a strong loyalty program, the "Mad Money" host said.

Analysts also liked the retailer's growth opportunities. When Ollie's came public, management planned to grow its 200 stores to around 950. Now, the company has 240 stores and a distribution network that can support 400, Cramer said.

And the earnings have so far supported the bulls' thesis. In Ollie's latest quarter, sales increased by 20.5 percent and earnings grew by 28.6 percent, beating Wall Street's expectations.

"The reason? Because while things might be very tough for retail in general, that's exactly the kind of environment where Ollie's thrives because it means they can get more merchandise from stores that are shutting down," Cramer explained.

But that didn't stop Citi from issuing its bearish call. That thesis hinged on lofty expectations for Ollie's, which could prompt a sell-off if it only narrowly beats them in its third-quarter earnings report.

Citi was also worried about competition from the dollar stores and other mass-market retailers including Amazon, even as manufacturers prohibit many of Ollie's brand-name products from being sold online.

Much of the bear thesis was forward-looking. The analyst raised concerns about the retailer's planned construction of a new distribution center narrowing its margins in 2020.

Citi also called into question the profitability of Ollie's newly opened stores, which analyst said could cannibalize their own market.

"That said, Citi's 'sell' recommendation has so many caveats that I have trouble considering it all that bearish," Cramer said. "Put it all together and Citi's basically saying that the stock has run very far very fast, and while the business sure looks good right now, there are all sorts of ways things could potentially go wrong."

All in all, Cramer wasn't swayed by Citi's thesis, even as he thought the stock was far from cheap at $46, trading at 32 times next year's earnings estimates.

"Here's the bottom line: when you're dealing with red-hot stocks, you always need to be cognizant of what the bears are saying," he said. "With Ollie's, I think the bulls are dead right about the fundamentals, but the bears have a point when they say that the stock has run a great deal. So let me give you a synthesis — let's hope Ollie's stock comes down, perhaps after it reports in less than three weeks — because this is exactly the kind of name that's worth buying into a pullback because the long-term story remains very much intact."

In an emailed response to CNBC's request for comment, Mark Butler, the president and CEO of Ollie's, wrote:

"We appreciate Jim's insight and analysis on Ollie's, and sharing our passionate pursuit to sell bargains. Our stores are loaded with brand names at drastically reduced prices, as America's love for a bargain will never, ever go out of style."

WATCH: Cramer reviews the bull-bear debate around Ollie's Bargain Outlet

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