Piper Jaffray's bullish report sees Target mildly hurt by data breach

  • Article by: THOMAS LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 3, 2014 - 7:00 AM

Even after factoring in fallout, the report raised the holiday sales estimate to a 1.5 percent gain.

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Rows of carts await customers at a Target store.

Photo: M. Spencer Green, Associated Press

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Piper Jaffray & Co. on Thursday predicted relatively strong holiday sales for Target Corp. despite the recent theft of credit and debit card information at its stores.

Thanks to strong sales of video-game consoles and a solid debut of its promotion to buy online, pick up in store, analyst Sean Naughton said he believes sales at stores open for at least a year will rise 1.5 percent, compared with his earlier prediction of flat results.

Naughton’s upgraded forecast factors in the fallout from revelations that thieves stole credit and debit card information from about 40 million Target customers.

In other words, if it were not for the security breach, Target might have generated an even higher comparable-store sales gain than 1.5 percent.

“The credit card situation is a little bit of an unknown, I will say that,” Naughton said during a brief phone interview. “But sales have gone relatively well.”

The company declined to comment. Target stock rose 9 cents to close Thursday at $63.18.

Not everyone shares Naughton’s optimism. Target has historically avoided heavy discounting during the holiday shopping season, a strategy that helps preserve higher profit margins but has led to several years of subpar holiday sales. Several analysts also predicted weak sales of clothing, a key category for Target.

But Naughton said that electronics alone, especially sales of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, could add as much as 1 percent to Target’s same-store sales numbers. In addition, Target’s rollout of a service that allows customers to pick up their online purchases at the stores has gone smoothly.

“We thought it was a little choppy at first,” Naughton said, “but I think Target will grab market share [because of the service].”

Target may have provided a clue that its sales were going better than expected when the company released a statement on Dec. 18 from CEO Gregg Steinhafel in which he stated strongly that the holiday season was going well.

“We are pleased with Target’s holiday performance — from guest experience and engagement to overall results both in-store and online,” Steinhafel said at the time.

Retailers rarely issue sales guidance in the middle of a quarter, especially a well-disciplined company like Target. Some analysts suggested that Steinhafel was signaling to Wall Street that Target at the minimum will meet its modest forecast of flat to slightly comparable-store gain or perhaps even exceed it.

“It was an interesting release” that contributed to Piper’s positive report, Naughton said.

But on the same day of Steinhafel’s statement, media outlets reported that Target was the victim of the second-largest data breach in retail history. The revelations came just on the eve of the final weekend before Christmas, typically the busiest shopping period of the year.

Brian Yarbrough, a retail analyst with Edward Jones Investments in St. Louis, said the timing of Steinhafel’s statement was a surprise, given the circumstances. Why would Target release Steinhafel’s upbeat statement if it already knew of the credit card breach? he asked.

“Who in investor relations actually thought this was a good idea?” Yarbrough said.

Analysts remain divided over what effect, if any, the breach will have on holiday sales. “A major consumer backlash is unlikely,” MKM Partners wrote in a research note.

But Craig Johnson, president of consulting firm Customer Growth Partners, estimated that traffic at Target stores dropped 3 percent during the last weekend before Christmas and said that the credit card thefts were the single-biggest reason for the decline.

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