Activist group says Kohl's earnings show 'best of worst' in retail

Customers leave a Kohl’s store on November 12, 2015 in San Rafael, California.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images News | Getty Images

A group of activists looking to seize control of Kohl’s board published a letter Friday saying the retailer’s latest quarterly financial results were lackluster and further demonstrate the need for an overhauled strategy.

“The board seems to be content performing just slightly better than the worst companies in retail,” the group said in the letter to Kohl’s shareholders. “‘Best of the worst’ is not a viable strategy, nor does it satisfy shareholders like us seeking long-term superior performance.”

“Kohl’s is enormously well positioned with off-mall locations, which has significant advantages, but it also means Kohl’s competes against thriving off-mall players like TJX Companies, Ross Stores, Target, Old Navy and Burlington,” it added.

The group of investors — Macellum Advisors, Ancora Holdings, Legion Partners Asset Management and 4010 Capital — owns a 9.5% stake in Kohl’s.

In late February, Kohl’s rejected their attempt to take control of its board, arguing it would disrupt the momentum it has had in revamping its business.

When Kohl’s reported fourth-quarter earnings earlier in the week, it topped Wall Street’s estimates and pointed to stronger growth in 2021, as its initiatives to drive sales growth (like partnering with the makeup retailer Sephora) are expected to take hold. Kohl’s also announced it will reinstate its dividend and buy back shares.

It further called out some fresh details to placate activists’ frustrations, including the fact that Kohl’s added more than 2 million new customers in 2020 thanks to its Amazon returns service.

The activists said Friday, however, that they remain skeptical that Kohl’s Amazon returns program adds to earnings.

A spokeswoman for Kohl’s told CNBC in an emailed statement that the activists’ comparisons of 2019 financial results to expectations for 2021 are “nonsensical given a continuing global pandemic.”

“The activists’ comments and track record reveal that they are focused on short-term payout at the expense of sustainable success,” she said. “We reject the activists’ short-termism and their attempt to disrupt our momentum at this critical time. We remain open and interested in new ideas that can help us increase value for our company and our shareholders.”

Kohl’s shares were falling about 2% midday Friday. The stock is up about 50% over the past 12 months. Kohl’s has a market cap of $8.64 billion, which is bigger than Nordstrom‘s and Macy’s.

Read the full letter from the activists here.

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