Every Day Is Opening Night

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Every day is Opening Night, silked and satined ladies and gentlemen glide past and strings of crystals effect a shimmering cascade of raindrops. Scented with the finest and most rare of fragrances, the wonders of the day envelop you, the newest improvements of science and the highest refinements of art and architecture. All is glimmering and gleaming. Prestige, pride, and prosperity surround you at every turn.

Wherever you go in this place you are always right and always welcome. Aromas of sweetmeats and delicacies unavailable anywhere else greet you as you wend your way past marvels of manufacture. Music from the hottest nightclubs is broadcast and the renowned of the world rub shoulders with you. You stand awestruck.

A Retail Star Is Born

Where are you? When is this? Selfridges, the London department store and the time is less than a century ago. The impresario behind this Emporium of the Empire is American Harry Gordon Selfridge, who pioneered concepts now accepted as retail gospel: the customer is always right, locating beauty and fragrance departments at the front, the first in-store restaurant, the decoration of display windows as art, celebrity lines of merchandise (Amelia Earhart had a line of women's activewear), and celebrity endorsements all rolled up into the ball of wax he called "the theatre of retail."

"The Chief," as Selfridge was affectionately called by staff, was truly a showman displaying the first monoplane to fly over water attracting 150,000 customers over 4 days. Later in 1925 his store displayed the first television. He also initiated the first Bargain Basement. Despite his old-fashioned walrus mustache he was the most visionary merchant of the day competing against eight other venerated department stores to make his the shopping destination. If you thought Black Friday lines were crazy it took 30 officers to restrain crowds at the 1909 opening.

Latter Day Mr. Selfridges

Are there retailers like The Chief anymore?  There was Steve Jobs of Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), whose attention to detail on the retail stores and Apple products was as legendary as The Chief's. His hands on displays of iStuff are very much in the Selfridge mold (before Selfridges, items were kept behind counters) and the Genius Bar is a concept The Chief would applaud. Jobs' announcements of new products were impresario like. The sleek packaging and striking ads would have delighted Mr. Selfridge. He once said, "There's no fun like work," and Jobs certainly agreed taking a dollar a year as salary (of course he had plenty of stock options).

Jobs was also ousted from the company he founded like Mr. Selfridge but Jobs returned to greater success than ever. Like The Chief, Jobs was exacting and impatient. Mr. Selfridge walked the shop floors daily and was called "Mile A Minute Harry."

Selfridges carried on after The Chief's passing (named Best Department Store in The World in 2012) and so will Apple. Off significantly from its high of $705 with a P/E of 10.43 and a 2.30% yield Apple is looking as pretty as a Selfridges’ window at Christmas.

Apple's cash hoard of $137 billion begs the question, what would Mr. Selfridge do? Plow it back into innovation and marketing. Let Apple keep making new things we suddenly can't live without and the Apple Stores more and more marvelous. You may not rub shoulders with silks and satins at an Apple store but the atmosphere is no less vibrant.

There's Terry Lundgren, CEO at Macy's (NYSE: M), world's largest department store and a major part of our popular culture with 86 years of Thanksgiving parades, Miracle on 34th Street, Fourth of July fireworks, and countless appearances onscreen. Macy's also owns Bloomingdale's for a total of 847 stores. Founded in 1820 the company's stock is still some 15% off its 2005 all-time high of $45.00.

Macy's trades at a 12.12 P/E with a 2.00% yield and PEG of .89. Macy's has outperformed rivals Kohl's and J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP) with Lundgren's My Macy's localization strategy as well as its e-commerce sites. Macy's same store sales were up 11.7% in January and the company reports again on February 26. While not the sensory experience that Selfridges was Macy's is the closest with its flagship store at Herald Square. Lundgren has taken a few pages from The Chief's playbook like the exclusive New York Fashion Week collections, celebrity lines, and renaming the week after Christmas the Week of Wonderful to bring in traffic.

Not SRO At These Retailers

Interestingly, Sears Holdings once owned Selfridges in the 1990s and renovated the store as well as rebranding their carrier bag so adroitly customers patronized Selfridges' just for the bag. Why Sears Holdings hasn't done the same for Sears and KMart is puzzling.

J.C Penney was once America's department store but only a retail visionary like Mr. Selfridge could turn it around now. CEO Ron Johnson, formerly of Apple, has made a yearlong effort to brighten the stores and bring on new brands, just recently offering the Nanette Lepore and William Rast clothing lines. Johnson has been rolling out the shop within a shop nationally for what he calls a modern bazaar. Also, within the year the addition of iPads will make for easy mobile checkout making lines a thing of the past. Lines at Penney's, unfortunately for them, are already a thing of the past. Johnson's new mantra should be: What Would Selfridge Do?

J.C. Penney stock has plunged 52% over the last year and still has negative EPS of -$2.39 on a $19.00 stock.  Expect volatility with a short interest of 43% when it reports on February 27.

The Final Curtain

Putting on a great show is what differentiates Apple and Macy's from lesser retailers. Both remain buys, especially Apple. If Mr. Selfridge was still around, he would be calling Bravo! to these retailers who've put on a successful revival of his work. And when PBS debuts "Mr. Selfridge" in America in March investors should watch. It wouldn't hurt retail CEOs to take notes (Ron Johnson, I mean you). You won't be bored, Mr. Selfridge, also called the West End Lothario, lived quite the scandalous life.


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