YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Surprise jump in thefts costs 99 Cents Only

June 12, 2008|Tom Petruno | Times Staff Writer

Somebody stole away 99 Cents Only Stores Inc.'s quarterly profit -- literally.

The City of Commerce discount retailer said Wednesday that it lost $4.4 million, or 6 cents a share, in the fiscal fourth quarter ended March 29 because of an unexpected jump in thefts at some of its stores.

So-called shrink expenses -- losses tied to a drop in product inventories -- were $5.5 million greater than the company had expected for the quarter, Chief Executive Eric Schiffer said in a conference call with analysts and investors.

He said the company believed that "unexpected theft-related shrink is largely responsible" for the jump in overall shrink expenses.

Analysts had expected a modest profit in the latest quarter, betting that the company's bargain-priced food and general merchandise would attract more consumers who are struggling to cope with the surge in gasoline prices this year.

The surprise loss triggered a sell-off in the retailer's shares in after-hours trading: The stock fell to $7.20, after rising 27 cents to $7.89 in regular trading. The company reported its results shortly after markets closed.

99 Cents Only Stores, founded in 1982 by David Gold, pioneered the single-price retail concept. Everything in the now 265-store chain is priced at 99 cents or less.

Sales totaled $1.2 billion in the last fiscal year, $290 million of it in the last quarter. But the company's earnings picture has dimmed since 2003, and management has struggled with accounting troubles that have strained its credibility with Wall Street.

With the sudden surge in theft losses, "It's a management credibility issue again," said Joan Storms, an analyst who follows the company for brokerage Wedbush Morgan Securities in L.A.

Schiffer said on the conference call that the company believed that the theft troubles were "fixable." He and other executives said the losses were concentrated in 29 stores, and that "a lot of them, not all, but a lot of them are in one geographic area."

Where? Schiffer wouldn't say, except that "it's not Los Angeles." The company has stores across California and in Arizona, Nevada and Texas.

As for the culprits, the company wasn't specific in the conference call about whether the thefts were believed to be primarily by customers or by employees. Executives didn't return a reporter's phone calls.

But at one point during the conference call, Schiffer appeared to point to thefts by insiders.

"It's well known throughout the company that we are in the process of taking our existing management and putting them through training, upgrading the staff out there," he said.

"And we always say that we hope all of them are able to make the transition. I don't know the effect on people who think that they may not be able to make the transition during these current economic times."

Schiffer and other executives tried to put the best face on the quarter's results, noting that sales at stores open at least one year were up 1.5% -- the 10th consecutive quarterly increase -- even as some retailers have reported lower sales.

The company also said it had reduced store labor costs via "tighter management of store overtime and overall store labor productivity improvements."

But management signaled new doubts about its expansion into Texas. Schiffer said that as part of an ongoing review of its operations in Texas, the company had suspended new store openings and would be closing underperforming stores.


Los Angeles Times Articles