Ross Stores, Inc. (ROST), together with its subsidiaries, operates off-price retail apparel and home fashion stores under the Ross Dress for Less and dds DISCOUNTS brand names in the United States. It primarily offers apparel, accessories, footwear, and home fashions. Ross Stores is a dividend achiever, which has raised dividends for 21 years in a row.
The most recent dividend increase was in February 2015, when the Board of Directors approved a 17.50% increase in the quarterly dividend to 23.50 cents/share.
The company’s largest competitors include TJ Companies (TJX), Kohl’s (KSS) and Macy’s (M).
Over the past decade this dividend growth stock has delivered an annualized total return of 21.90% to its shareholders. Future returns will be dependent on growth in earnings and starting dividend yields obtained by shareholders.
The company has managed to deliver a 22.80% average increase in annual EPS over the past decade. Ross Stores is expected to earn $4.84 per share in 2015 and $5.41 per share in 2016. In comparison, the company earned $4.42/share in 2014.
Earnings per share have also been aided by share buybacks. The number of shares outstanding has decreased from 293 million in 2005 to 209 million by 2015. I like the fact that management is focused on delivering excess cashflow and then sharing that cashflow with shareholders in the form of higher dividends and share buybacks. While I would prefer special dividends to share repurchases, I will take what I can.
As consumers become more price sensitive, companies like Ross Stores that provide quality merchandise at a discount tend to profit. Based on historical performance, it looks like this is a recession resistant business, which could deliver results in good and bad years.
Future growth will be aided by opening new stores in the US, as well as starting international expansion like competitor T.J. Companies.
The important factor for Ross is that it needs its buyers to select and purchase quality inventory that will sell quickly. In fact, it has managed to achieve that, as evidenced by its low inventory turnover of 2 months or so, versus three months for the average department store. When you manage to sell inventory quickly, you reduce the need for further discounting of inventory, and you reduce the costs associated with storing inventory for too long. In addition, bargain shoppers are more likely to increase the frequencies of their visits if the stores are constantly re-stocked with fresh new inventory on the shelves.
The company’s stores offer everyday low pricing on department store brands, which are sold at significant discounts off competitors. There is a broad assortment of goods, which creates a “treasure hunt” type environment for shoppers. The self-help type of the store reduces need for labor relative to competitors. In addition, I think there is a lower risk of disruption by the internet for the type of store like Ross or TJ Max, due to nature of its merchandise and treasure hunt mentality of shoppers there.
For Ross, it is important for buyers to have solid relationships in order to snap quality merchandise quickly and at discounted prices. Competition for that merchandise is intense, which is why speed and relationships and scale matter. Ross Stores does have quite have the scale in terms of 600 buyers negotiating with 8000 vendors in order to fill, the stores and 4 distribution centers in order to obtain the right inventory for the right stores at the appropriate time. However, its larger competitor has almost three times the number of stores as Ross, and twice as much buyers. However, Ross Stores has managed to grow operations rapidly, and still has room to expand its geographic reach beyond the 33 states it is in and the 1362 stores it currently owns and operates. Of those stores, 1210 are under the Ross Stores brand and 152 are dd’s Discounts brand.
The company expects that it would ultimately be able almost double stores in the US ( 1500 Ross Stores and 500 DD discount Stores). At a rate of 5% – 6% growth in number of stores, this could be achieved within 12 – 14 years. If Ross Stores also manages to grow same-store sales alongside with new store openings, and if it also manages to expand internationally, it could achieve high earnings growth over the next decade.
The annual dividend payment has increased by 25% per year over the past decade, which is much higher than the growth in EPS. Future growth in dividends will likely exceed growth in earnings per share given that the payout ratio has room for expansion.
A 25% growth in distributions translates into the dividend payment doubling almost every three years on average. If we check the dividend history, going as far back as 1995, we could see that Ross Stores has indeed managed to double dividends almost every three years on average.
In the past decade, the dividend payout ratio has remained steady, and it has only increased slightly to 18% in 2015. A lower payout is always a plus, since it leaves room for consistent dividend growth minimizing the impact of short-term fluctuations in earnings.
Ross Stores has also managed to grow its high return on equity from 24.90% in 2006 to 43.20% in 2015. I generally like seeing a high return on equity, which is also relatively stable or rising over time.
Currently, Ross Stores is overvalued at 21.40 times forward earnings and yields 0.90%. Despite the fact that I typically require a higher initial yield, I like the growth story and the growth prospects behind this company. I would consider initiating a small position in the stock on dips below $96/share.
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