Gadfly

Regretting That Ann Taylor Purchase?

For retailer Ascena, acquiring the brand hasn't fixed its problems as much as it's added to them.
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People pass the window display of an Ann Taylor women's clothing store in Manhattan.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Brick-and-mortar retail is a terrible place to be these days. And still, among the publicly traded fashion chains you'd be hard-pressed to find one worse off than Ascena Retail Group Inc., the home of women's clothing chains Ann Taylor and Loft as well as Dress Barn and others.

Ascena's stock has tumbled about 40 percent in the span of a month, leaving the company valued at $441 million. That's puny in comparison to the $1.32 billion impairment charge it announced last week, alongside third-quarter results that were so far below previous guidance, the company had to warn shareholders a couple of weeks ahead of time that they'd need to brace themselves.

A majority of the write-down is attributable to the acquisition of Ann Inc., whose brands now make up Ascena's largest division. The deal closed only 22 months ago, so the complications have come in relatively short order. And as of now, there's not much evidence that the situation is improving or that management even fully understands its problems or its new Ann customers.

Online shopping is the common denominator in the industry's pain, and it's spurred mass store closures across the U.S. and even some bankruptcies. But unlike J. Crew, Payless and others where the tipping point has been burdensome debt from leveraged buyouts, Mahwah, New Jersey-based Ascena can't place the blame on private equity firms. 

Ascena transformed itself from the modest Dress Barn company -- named for the low-priced women's chain it founded in 1962 -- into an industry consolidator, which is an oddity in retail. In fact, for as long as I've covered mergers and acquisitions, analysts have told me that very few apparel retailers merge with one another because it simply doesn't work. And when they do, the acquirer is usually attempting to offset its own weakness -- take Coach Inc. buying Kate Spade & Co. this year and how both American Eagle Outfitters Inc. and Express Inc. are reportedly looking at Abercrombie & Fitch Co. 

Ascena's management made the decision to pay $1.75 billion of cash and issue $345 million of stock for Ann just as its own operations were beginning to show signs of difficulty. It was Ascena's biggest acquisition and cost nearly five times the company's current market value. 

But acquiring the higher-priced mall brands Ann Taylor and Loft hasn't fixed Ascena's problems as much as it's added to them. Management will point out that it's cut $160 million of costs from Ann through overhead and supply-chain synergies and sees that figure reaching $235 million by the end of its 2019 fiscal year. While this marks good progress toward improving profitability, getting rid of redundancies isn't enough to justify what we now know was an overpriced deal -- the brands need help and Ascena spent a lot to step outside its comfort zone in a challenging environment. 

There is no shortage of clothing brands and still too many stores, and yet many professional women feel there aren't enough options for desk-to-dinner and weekend wear. This should be Ann Taylor and Loft's sweet spot, but the styles have been misses for multiple seasons, which is evident from the "40 percent off" signs you frequently see in their windows. Steep summer discounts used to come just as we turned the corner on fall, but Loft's new summer line is already marked down in June. And a big turnoff for online shoppers: They need to spend $125 just to get free shipping.

Instead of accepting the reality of online shopping and trying to embrace it, Ascena seems to be fighting it. On last week's earnings call, CEO David Jaffe discussed a new program in which a customer purchasing through the website can pick up the order in a store to save on shipping, which he hopes will result in her spending even more once there. But she may be too put off by the fact that she had to squeeze in a store run and wait in line just to save a few bucks. 

It's clear Ascena has taken on more than it should have at a time when the industry is in flux. The company does have some good brands, but fighting the internet and customers' changing wardrobe needs isn't doing it any favors. Plenty of women are ready to spend, but some retailers are standing in their own way. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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