Shares of American Eagle (NYSE:AEO) popped in early June after the mall apparel retailer reported first-quarter numbers that were surprisingly strong. I use the word “surprisingly” here because pretty much every one of American Eagle’s peers reported ugly first quarter 2019 numbers, with the norm across the industry being revenue and profit misses, negative comparable sales growth and margin compression.
American Eagle did report margin compression. But, that’s where the bad news ended. The retailer actually topped top- and bottom-line expectations by a healthy margin, driven by a robust 6% rise in comparable sales. Analysts had been looking for just 3% comparable sales growth. In response to the strong report, AEO stock rose by 4.7%.
This rally in American Eagle stock should last.
Zooming out, AEO stock dropped big in May against an ugly retail backdrop. First, all of American Eagle’s peers reported really bad early 2019 numbers in May. Second, trade conflicts globally heated up. Retailers are stuck at the epicenter of those trade conflicts. As such, retail stocks were killed in May, including AEO.
But strong first-quarter numbers affirm that American Eagle is a winning retailer in a mixed retail environment, so the sell-off as the result of bad peer numbers is overdone. Further, American Eagle’s second-quarter guide came in only a few pennies shy of estimates, with the broad implication being that this company can side-step a big tariff hit in the short term.
As such, the two headwinds which killed AEO stock in May are disappearing in June. As they do, this stock should rebound in a big way.
Mall Retail Struggled In Early 2019
In May, multiple mall retailers reported first-quarter 2019 numbers, and almost none of them delivered good results.
Mall giants Nordstrom (NYSE:JWN) and JC Penney (NYSE:JCP) both reported ugly first-quarter numbers, with sharply negative comparable sales growth and big margin compression. Smaller mall retailers, like Gap (NYSE:GPS), Urban Outfitters (NASDAQ:URBN), Express (NYSE:EXPR) and many others likewise reported ugly first quarter numbers.
The big takeaway was that mall retail had a bad first few months of 2019. Despite a healthy labor market, low interest rates, healthy credit, and a strong consumer, mall retailers generally didn’t win in early 2019.
American Eagle Had A Strong Start To The Year
While mall retail may have had a bad start to 2019, American Eagle didn’t.
American Eagle beat both top- and bottom-line expectations. Comps at the American Eagle brand rose 4%. Comps at Aerie rose 14%. Those are pretty big growth numbers against the backdrop of the negative comp numbers American Eagle’s peers reported.
This outperformance and strength is nothing new. American Eagle has been the cream-of-the-crop in the mall retail sector for a long time. The company has rattled off 17 consecutive quarters of comparable sales growth and 6 consecutive quarters of 5%-plus comparable sales growth.
The secret juice? Jeans and lingerie. American Eagle is the best teenager jeans brand around. As the jeans trend has made a comeback over the past several quarters, American Eagle’s numbers have improved. Meanwhile, Aerie is capitalizing on a secular shift in the intimates market from bombshell beauty to natural beauty. As this shift has played out, Aerie has won share from traditional intimates king Victoria’s Secret.
Net net, American Eagle has capitalized on two fashion trends over the past several quarters to drive operational outperformance. These trends persist in early 2019. Consequently, so did American Eagle’s outperformance, despite broader retail struggles.
American Eagle Stock Should Bounce Back
Fashion trends change all the time. Of course, jeans won’t remain hot forever. Nor will the natural beauty shift. But, American Eagle management has time and time again shown a unique and largely unprecedented ability to capitalize on fashion trends, and use them to drive healthy numbers across the company.
After all, 17 straight quarters of positive comps means this company has been comping positive for more than four years. That’s a long time. Over the past four years, many fashion trends have come and gone, including the jeans trend (jeans’ popularity is very cyclical). American Eagle’s operational out-performance has stayed.
Thus, the May sell-off in AEO stock related to mall retail struggles is overdone. That sell-off was due to concerns that AEO was in the same boat as its peers. But, the company isn’t, not has it struggled for a long, long time. As such, the current trend of operational outperformance is set to persist, and the mall retail concerns which weighed on AEO stock in May should ease in June.
Further, AEO stock also dropped in May because of trade war concerns. But, management delivered a second quarter guide which called for continued positive comparable sales growth, and only missed Street profit estimates by a few pennies a share. Thus, management clearly doesn’t expect a big impact from tariffs in the near term. Tariff concerns should likewise ease in June.
All in all, with mall retail and tariff concerns set to ease in June, AEO stock is positioned to bounce back.
Bottom Line on AEO Stock
American Eagle is the cream of the crop in the mall retail sector, and strong first quarter numbers serve to further support this thesis. So long as this remains true — and so long as the company can side-step the impact of tariffs and the U.S. consumer remains healthy — then AEO stock should trend higher.
As of this writing, Luke Lango was long JWN and URBN.
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