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MISSION:INTANGIBLE, the blog of the Intangible Asset Finance Society, offers critical comments on intangible asset, corporate reputation, and finance; supplemented by quantitative reputation metrics. Intangible assets include business processes, patents, trademarks; reputations for ethics and integrity; quality, safety, sustainability, security, and resilience; and comprise 70% of the average company's value. MISSION:INTANGIBLE is a registered trademark of the Intangible Asset Finance Society.

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WMT v. TGT: Spring 2013 Edition

C. HUYGENS - Tuesday, April 02, 2013
It's time to review Huygens' favorite retail rivalry. Previously, six weeks ago, Walmart (WMT) made the news as leaked emails suggested management was concerned about awful sales. It was not the economy, although it provided good cover. It was further evidence of a looming reputational crisis.

A reputational crisis, as readers of Reputation, Stock Price and You well know, is a business condition when a plurality of stakeholders reassess their relationship with a company and act with economic force in a way that punishes a company. Customers stop buying, price premiums drop, employees work less efficiently for higher labor costs, suppliers charge more or otherwise reduce a company's priority, credit costs rise, etc.

Bloomberg reports today that Walmart is having trouble stocking its shelves. Customers are not finding that which they seek, and are not returning. According to Bloomberg, the problem is labor -- more specifically, a shortage. "The Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer’s workforce at its namesake and Sam’s Club warehouse chains in the U.S. fell by about 120,000 employees between 2008 and Jan. 31, according to a securities filing on March 26. The company now has about 1.3 million U.S. workers. In the same period, it has added about 455 U.S. Wal-Mart stores, bringing its total to 4,005." Here's the math: Five-year store growth at 13%; employee growth at -1.3%.

Recapping, Walmart has regulatory issues with possible violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; labor groups are active again; customers are not visiting; work is not being done...a reputational crisis in waiting, no? Other objective measures, namely the Steel City Re Reputational Value Metrics, indicate significant volatility in the measure of reputational value. In "investor relations" parlance, these data indicate that there is a deteriorating consensus about Walmart's prospects. In "reputation risk" parlance, these data are indicators of a reputation in the early stages of trouble. Momentum indicators are still neutral, but given Walmart's heft, once they start sliding aggressively, it'll be tough to reverse.

By the way, if you were wondering who were the leading and lagging firms in the retail sector, the current king is Costco (COST). At the other end of the spectrum, the firm with the lowest reputational value among its 15 peers is Sears Holdings (SHLD).

Big Box Retailers: Price, quality, and location

Nir Kossovsky - Wednesday, July 14, 2010
A big box retailer’s reputation is driven by the price and quality of its products, but not by its propinquity. Such are the data from an analysis prompted by the July 2010 issue of Consumer Reports magazine whose headline reads, “Best stores for practically anything.”

The 2 June press release provides highlights of a survey of 30,000 readers of the consumer-oriented magazine on their big-store shopping preferences. The companies are Costco (NASDAQ:COST), Dillard's Inc. (NYSE:DDS), Kohl's Corporation (NYSE:KSS), JCPenny (NYSE:JCP), Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT), Sam's Club (NYSE:WMT), Sears (NASDAQ:SHLD), Macy's Inc. (NYSE:M), Meijer (private), Walmart Stores (NYSE:WMT), and Kmart (NYSE:SHLD). The results of the survey may surprise you. If you are a follower of this blog, the correlation of the results of the survey with the metrics of the Steel City Re Corporate Reputation Index should not.

According to the magazine, the Consumer Reports ratings are based on the experiences of 30,666 readers who characterized 56,922 trips to 11 retailers between April 2008 to April 2009. The Reader Score represents overall satisfaction. A score of 100 would mean all respondents were completely satisfied; 80 means they were very satisfied on average; 60, fairly well. The results are summarized in the table at left.

In the two charts below, we show the correlation of the consumer survey data with the Corporate Reputation Index metrics. Blog readers are generally familiar with the underpinnings of the rankings. For this analysis, we created a derivative metric, the Reputation Vector. The reputation vector takes three factors into account: the average Corporate Reputation Index ranking over the trailing twelve months; the trend, and the variance. The first graph shows the correlation of the Reader Score for all of the companies with the corresponding Reputation Vector value. The slope is positive, but the explanatory power of the trend line only accounts for about 20% of the variance.

According to the survey, for each of the stores, readers cited their primary reasons for shopping at that venue. The three reasons were low price, high quality products, and location. When the data are analyzed separately, a slightly more interesting pattern emerges. All three trend lines are still positive, but the explanatory powers are radically different. 77% of the variance in Reader Score is explained by variance in the Reputation Vector when shoppers were motivated by price; 100% of the variance is explained by the Reputation Vector when shoppers were motivated by quality (not that meaningful with only two data points); but only 4% of the variance is explained when shoppers were motivated by location.

The data suggest that the overall consumer experience as indicated by the Reader Score correlates well with the financially-relevant derivative metric of Reputation Vector – which captures the behavioral expectations of stakeholders -- when price or quality are the primary drivers of behavior. The moral: “Location, location, location” may still be important, but with so much now accessible through the internet, price and quality are by far more important drivers of reputation and the economic benefits and costs thereon.

Costco: Food for thought

Nir Kossovsky - Tuesday, January 05, 2010
While the CEO contributes materially to a company's reputation, the products and services also speak for themselves. This is true even when the CEO is a founder and a lightning rod for controversy. Consider John Mackey, CEO, Whole Foods Markets (NASDAQ:WFMI).

In late summer, we shared that he had courted controversy with the left-leaning segment of his customer base through a strongly worded op ed in the Wall Street Journal. We speculated about the reputation effects. On October 3, he reappeared in the Wall Street Journal in an interview that markedly softened the tone of the August writings. Last, at the end of last month, he finally agreed to relinquish the role of Chairman under pressure from a pension fund-based investment group.

Let's look at the numbers courtesy of Steel City Re , Big Charts.com and the FT's Newssift.com. Over the past twelve months, Whole Foods has had a volatile ride on the Corporate Reputation (IA) Index. It entered the year below the 40 percentile, and exited at about the same level having touched the 90th percentile in late October and diving below the 20th percentile in February. Meanwhile, its equity has returned to stakeholders about 140% for the year while the mean of the 24-member peer group matched the S&P500 returns of around 20%. Note the August 2009 dip on both the reputation index and the market cap.

Compare and contrast this extraordinary return for a company with a controversial CEO and a volatile corporate reputation with the returns of one of the highest reputation-ranked Food and Staples Retailing firms this past year, Costco Wholesale Corp (NASDAQ:COST). Its CEO, James D. Sinegal, is a quiet man, relatively speaking. The Steel City Re Corporate Reputation (IA) Index shows values in the 90th percentile or greater, excluding an early September 2009 dip. Yet the 12-month returns, while positive, are underperforming the S&P 500 by 13%.

With respect to sentiment, over the past 12 months, Newssift reports that of the 238 articles on Whole Foods and its high profile CEO, 32% were positive and 21% were negative for a ratio of 1.5. Of the 99 articles on Costco and its lower profile CEO, 35% were positive and 16% were negative for a ratio of 2. Yet Whole Foods outperformed Costco by a factor of 20. What gives?

There is a simple explanation -- reputation resilience. The financial benefits of Costco's high reputational standing are best seen over a two year window in the stock price chart below. While the markets suffered greatly in 2008 through March 2009, Whole Foods suffered massively with a 75% loss in market cap at its low point. Costco, however, outperformed the market over this two year window with a 24 month loss of about 7% compared to the S&Ps loss of about 22% and Whole Foods' loss of around 25%.

The dark lining to the silver cloud of reputation resilience is that there is less ground lost, and therefore less ground that can be made up. The polish on the silver cloud, however, is in cost of credit. Firms with superior reputations exhibit resilience and lower volatility. Firms with superior reputations have lower betas, lower costs of credit, and credit protection (credit default swaps). Whole Foods' beta is 1.19; Costco's is 0.79.

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