All Gussied up and No Place to Go

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Following six consecutive quarters of ugly earnings, cosmetic company Avon Products (NYSE: AVP) finally posted better than expected sales and earnings for Q4 and the full year of 2012. In fact, the 37 cents adjusted earnings per share the company posted for the fourth quarter handily beat the consensus forecast of 27 cents, and full year earnings of 85 cents came in ahead of the estimated 76 cents.

But despite the gussied-up numbers, full year numbers slipped significantly from the $1.64 per share gained in the same quarter a year ago, and full year revenue declined 5% to $10 million.

Also falling was revenue in its Beauty Products, Fashion and Home Products categories, which slipped 5%, 5% and 4% respectively.

In North America, sales slumped 12% year-over-year partly attributed to a decline in the number of active representatives. The Asia Pacific division saw a 3% revenue dip, while the slide in China was a steep 23%.

A bright spot was Latin America, where revenue rose 2%. Mexico kicked in 9% and Venezuela added 2%, good enough to offset the 3% decline in Brazil. Revenue in Europe, the Middle East and Africa ticked up 1% year-over-year, yet several regions reported waning numbers.

The door-to-door distributor of personal care, beauty and household products, via a vast and varied network of representatives in 140 countries peppered across the globe, has been trying to polish its image since 2008 when it was uncovered that a number of employees and executives were being investigated for possible bribery and other violations. The company has shelled out more than $250 million in legal fees and costs related to the investigation, which has not only sullied its reputation but also dragged down its bottom line.

Capable Sherilyn S. McCoy was brought in as CEO in April 2012, replacing Andrea Jung, who was the longest tenured female CEO among Fortune 500 companies. McCoy was at Johnson & Johnson for 30 years and ran the marketing for J&J’s skin care brands. Her appointment was applauded by investors and industry analysts. She has vowed to fix the deeply rooted problems and aims to cut costs by $400 million by the end of 2015.

Those cost cutting measures include leaving some markets. Avon left South Korea and Vietnam in 2012. It may leave more underperforming international markets as it shifts focus to more profitable regions. The 126 year-old beauty brand acknowledges U.S. sales have been disappointing, but the company has no immediate plans to abandon the U.S.

Avon has plenty of competition here and abroad, like behemoth Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG), the parent company behind a bevy of health and beauty products including Olay, Cover Girl, Hugo Boss Fragrances, Vidal Sasson, Secret and Ivory Soap. The world’s largest household products maker recently reported quarterly profits that easily soared past projections thanks to higher prices and new products that propelled sales growth. The stellar quarter was a strong indication that turnaround efforts are paying off. Plus, investors searching for steady and growing dividends can appreciate PG’s history of increasing its dividend rate for 56 years. Shares yield just under 3%.

Another rival is NU Skin Enterprises (NYSE: NUS), a Provo, Utah based company that develops and distributes anti-aging personal care products and supplements worldwide. The company recently reported healthy Q4 earnings of 97 cents a share, a 27% improvement over the prior year. Revenue surpassed $2 billion for the first time with annual revenue jumping 24% year-over-year. Making it look easy, 2012 annual revenue of $2.17 billion marked the company’s fifth consecutive record year of revenue.

The company just increased its dividend to 30 cents a share, 50% higher than the 20 cents the firm paid in all four quarters of 2012. Moreover, Nu Skin has strong share buyback activity, a signal the company believes shares are undervalued.

While some analysts see Avon as undervalued, they remain guarded until they see more visibility on the top line.

The company was in play last year. But Avon turned a cold shoulder to Coty when the privately held company rang up the troubled cosmetic maker in a $10.7 billion takeover offer in May 2012. Avon had no desire to sell to a smaller rival that was prepared to sell itself to Avon just months before Coty made and subsequently withdrew the bid.

With no more deals on the table and sales and revenue fading, the wrinkles at Avon have become more pronounced. There isn’t enough makeup in its cosmetic bag to cover up and fix the immediate problems.

Scores of investors fled after the failed Coty attempt, and no other cosmetics players have expressed interest in making a run for Avon. There was talk months ago that Richmont Holdings, a privately held conglomerate, was interested in Avon, but to date nothing has been floated.

It’s true that beauty is only skin deep. What’s on the surface is not nearly as important as what's on the inside. Externally, Avon shares are looking a tad more attractive; but after digging into the details there are plenty of others that appear more fetching even at first blush.

DianeAlter has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Procter & Gamble. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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