Why revenue doesn’t tell the whole story and why we need comparables in retailers’ financial reports

This post addresses these two questions

  • What do you think when you read on the news: Retailer A’s sales increased by 9% this year compared to last year?
  • What does “a 7% jump in comparables/comps for a retailer” mean?

In addition to revenue growth, look at gross margin as well

The first thing that jumps out of an income statement is revenue or net sales. That’s why it’s often referred to as “top line”. Does a change in revenue say a lot? Not so much. Let’s say if there is a year-over-year decrease in revenue, it’s safe to say that the company goes backwards directionally. If there is an increase year-over-year, the only conclusion that can be made at this stage is: well, at least this year isn’t a disaster, yet. Because there are a lot of factors that can contribute to the increase in revenue and can make such an increase pretty meaningless. It requires further investigation.

Let’s look at an example. You sold 10 tomatoes last year, each of which was bought at $7 and sold at 10$. The total revenue last year was $100 and the gross margin was ($10 – $7)*10 pieces = $30. Gross margin ratio is $30/$100 = 30%.

This year, you sold 15 tomatoes for $12 each, but the cost of sales for each tomato went up $10. The total revenue this year went up to $180, an increase of 80% compared to last year. However, gross margin stays at ($12-$10)*15 = $30 and the ratio, as a result, decreased to $30/$180 or 16.7%. You can see clearly that the unit economics worsened and your business is actually in a worse shape than it was last year. Of course, this doesn’t even take into account other expenses such as Sales and Marketing, Selling, General and Administrative Expenses (SG&A) or R&D. I don’t want to go off track too much and this example should show you that relying on revenue growth alone isn’t anywhere close to being enough.

If gross margin isn’t an issue and revenue increased, does it mean that it’s all good? Not really.

Why do we need comparables?

For instance, if a retailer that operates multiple stores has an 8% YoY increase in revenue, it means that it brings 8% more this year than it did last year. There are two important factors that can contribute favorably to that and potentially mask the true performance of the retailer

  • Time: sometimes the comparison is between 52-week and 53-week fiscal years. As a result, it’s not surprising that the 53-week fiscal year brings in more sales. You can see from Figure 1 below Target highlighted the fact that 2017 had 53 weeks and they removed the results of the 53rd week from comparison to make it fair
  • Number of stores: if this year’s performance is derived from more stores that last year’s, it’s then not a fair comparison.
Figure 1 – Source: Target

That’s why retailers use the comparables concept in their reporting. It reflects the increase or decrease in performance derived from the same stores over the same period of time. Such an approach will result in a true fair comparison and an honest reflection of a company’s health

Figure 2 – Source: Costco

Figure 2 is a table from Costco’s latest annual report. The changes in comparable sales are smaller than the changes in net sales, albeit that all are positive. It means that in addition to the growth organically from the same stores in 2018, Costco also benefited from opening new stores. Without the breakdown, investors would not be able to discern Costco’s true performance in 2019.

Another useful metric to look at is Revenue Per Square Foot. It divides the total revenue by total square feet and reflects how much money a retailer can generate per a square foot. A square foot’s size doesn’t change over time. Using this metric, investors can generally tell whether a retailer leveraged its retail space better, regardless of how many stores were closed or opened.

Figure 3 – Source: Target

In Figure 3, the first number column from left to right is for 2019, followed by 2018 and so on. As you can see, Target increasingly generated more revenue per square foot from $298 in 2017 to $326 in 2019. Generally, it should be a positive sign, but like the case of revenue above, it may still be a misleading metric.

Figure 4

Let’s run a scenario. This retailer ran two stores in 2018 and added one more store during the year of 2019. As you can see, the revenue per square foot in 2019 was higher than that in 2018, but it may not be cause for celebration. Sales in Store A and B declined and the increase in revenue and revenue per square foot came solely from Store C’s performance. It means that there was some trouble with Store A and B; which caused a decrease in revenue.

In conclusion, it’s hardly enough to use one single metric to judge a company’s health. It’s a combination of many. Hope you found this helpful. Have a nice 4th of July.

The President, Economy and Stock Markets

Recently, I have come across quite a few posts on social media from my fellow Vietnamese back in my country about how the current President is responsible for the economy, evidenced by the unprecedented height of stock markets.

I am not so sure about that.

First, when a President takes office, he (since the US never has a female President) inherits his predecessor’s policies and economy. Discarding the existing policies takes time. New policies take time to go into effect. Then, it takes time to measure the effectiveness of the “new” economy. Economic policies aren’t light switches. Turn them on and the lights go on. Turn them off and the darkness comes. To determine whether the sitting President is truly responsible for the economy, one must be able to determine which policies were enacted and how the policies impacted the economy. I prepared a simple chart to illustrate the issue

To truly see how Trump stewarded the economy, one must be able to compare his performance with the trajectory based on what happened under Obama. Take all the factors, build a model and see how the predicted economy would have happened had Obama still been in office. Then, compare Trump’s performance to the model’s prediction which is the dotted line in the chart.

Take a look at the red line. The stock market still grew under Trump and still hit the all-time record. But then it is below what would have happened had Obama still been in the office. In that case, would you still say Trump did a good job? On the other hand, Trump should be credited for the stock market if his performance is the green line. Not only does the stock market hit the all-time high mark, but it also outperforms the model. No doubt about his credit here.

Here is exactly where the issue becomes tricky. It’s almost impossible to build an accurate model like that given how many unpredictable variables there are. As a consequence, I really doubt anyone can say with absolute certainty that one President is responsible for the stock market’s growth or that of the economy.

Now, one can definitely argue that as long as a President is in office, he or she should take credit for the economy and stock market’s performance. It’s fair to do so. But if that’s the case, he or she should also be responsible for everything wrong with the economy or stock market. You can’t cherry pick what to take credit for and what to avoid blame for. It doesn’t work that way.

If Trump takes credit for the stock market performance, he should also be held liable for the tariffs that are said to be suffered entirely by American businesses or consumers (CNBC) or for the huge increase in federal budget deficit (by 50%) since he took office (source: Heather Long).

It’s also worth noting that stock market performance, low unemployment rate or GDP growth or all together do not equal to increased wealth for average Americans. You can have all of them and increased income inequality, meaning that most of the increased wealth goes to the rich or the 1% or 10%, not the poorer Americans. And who should be held liable for that? The one who takes credit for the economy/stock market!

I really wish my fellow Vietnamese would be more informed