Why Walmart, Walgreens, CVS retail health clinic experiment is struggling

Bobbi Radford showed up at the CVS MinuteClinic in Batavia, Ohio, last Thanksgiving because she had pain in her arm.

“I waited an hour and then was told to go to the [emergency room].,” Radford said. Filling the staffer in on her history of congestive heart failure, she was directed to go to the ER. But Radford says after she did that, it was determined at the ER that she had a case of tennis elbow.

“It was a waste of my time, and I still had to go to my family doctor,” Radford said.

Despite their early promise of convenience and accessibility, in-store clinics haven’t been the golden egg-laying goose many retailers originally envisioned. That’s why Walmart recently announced it would shutter its 51 in-store full-service health-care centers. Another symptom of the ailing market is Walgreens, which announced the closing of 160 VillageMD locations (Walgreens owns a 53% stake in VillageMD, which also operates free-standing clinics). CVS’s MinuteClinic, the largest in-store clinic with over 1,100 locations, has announced dozens of clinic closings this year in Southern California and New England.

Not all patient experiences are negative. Karla Lemon of Conway, South Carolina, says she uses CVS’s MinuteClinic for vaccines or sinus infections. “I’ve had a pretty good experience with them,” said Lemon.

But the business experience in the retail health clinic space has largely disappointed. That’s not a huge surprise to Timothy Hoff, professor of management health-care systems at Northeastern University. Hoff has researched retail health clinics and how they deliver primary care and says that the margins can be thin to non-existent, and that the many other challenges have hindered their success. What was not too long ago viewed as the “2.0” version of primary health care is now being left behind in the wake of closed in-store clinics.

“1.0 was the rise of urgent care centers. Those were places 20 or 30 years ago that gave people alternatives to primary care doctors,” Hoff said. But about 15 years ago, Hoff says, the space began moving into heavily trafficked stores like groceries and department stores with health care attempting to meet people where they were. But this presented challenges that many retailers, and even some providers, weren’t familiar with.

“Some of these organizations grew this part of their business too quickly and didn’t realize the cost model in sustaining these,” Hoff said. Insurance reimbursements at these clinics are low, but the expenses have gone way up. “I just don’t think the math works for many places now to have many of these. Some of these large organizations are retrenching and pulling back,” Hoff added.

The retail clinics depend on volume selling. “If you can’t pump through a lot of patients, it doesn’t work,” Hoff said. Staffing was also a struggle. “They ended up being more expensive to run than they thought, combined with a workforce shortage, they just didn’t work.”

There is also the issue of cross-selling. A lot of retail chains use clinics as loss leaders to steer customers to other products and services they sell: lure customers in, in the hope they buy other stuff. But the model didn’t materialize. If someone is sick enough to seek care, they probably won’t be in the mood to purchase a pint of ice cream or socks while they are out. Likewise, “people coming in for groceries won’t necessarily hop over to the clinic,” Hoff said.

A retail reality check for MinuteClinic

Colleen Sanders, a family nurse practitioner in Washington, D.C., who now works in health-care education, worked a two-year stint at MinuteClinic. She pointed to margin and staffing issues she witnessed.

“Health care is a business in the USA; while we look at the giant numbers of how many billions are generated, it doesn’t mean there will be big margins. I think retailers have realized that they will not be making millions and millions of dollars,” said Sanders. “Margins are small.”

Staffing costs, meanwhile, slicing into already thin margins, meant that when Sanders worked at MinuteClinic, she did everything from checking people in, to billing and cleaning the clinic at the end of the day, and any support staff was undertrained, at best, she said. “That was the model to ensure they could do it so they didn’t have to add staff. But with volume, you need ancillary staff so the professional can dedicate time to patient care, because that is where you can bill insurance and revenue comes in.”

The 15 minutes that she was allotted to see a patient often just wasn’t enough for the complex ailments people sometimes have. For some patients, service simply wasn’t fast enough: Sanders recalled a 7-year-old she was treating remark that treatment was taking more than a minute. Ultimately, Americans’ “want-it-now” culture doesn’t mesh with medicine, and that is what the retail clinic closures are signaling. “The pace at which we want health care to work isn’t congruent with actually providing the level of service we should be providing, coupled with the cost of having support staff,” Sanders said. “If we wanted to make a dent in retail health care, then we would staff with registered nurses instead of medical assistants, but that would cost too much.”

CVS wouldn’t comment directly on the closings, but a spokesperson described the latest strategy as a combination of care delivery capabilities — a blend of virtual, in-store, and in-home services — that delivers a “more convenient experience.”

Walmart and the problem of volume vs. price

In 2019, Walmart announced a bold initiative to open in-store health clinics — according to one press report, its board approved a total of 4,000 to be added over a decade through 2029. Publicly, Walmart had only said it planned to develop a cost-efficient model and scale it appropriately, and disputed that specific number. The plans ended with the recent closing of the 51 clinics it had opened.

“Primary health care is a low margin business,” said Arielle Trzcinski, a principal analyst covering health care at research firm. Forrester. “Compared to what they see in traditional retail, health care is a fundamentally different business,” Trzcinski said, citing the challenges of navigating insurance companies and administrative burdens that health care brings.

Retailers can’t recoup money from offering primary care as a loss leader in the same way other health care organizations can.

“Primary care is a feeder for patients that need higher acuity services, such as surgery or specialists. Hospitals make money on the back end and Walmart or Walgreens didn’t have that,” Trzcinski said. CVS fares better because of its merger with health insurer Aetna that now allows for upselling of other services, including mental health.

“Walmart ultimately thought they were solving an important issue,” Trzcinski said, but she added that Walmart never really put its full marketing muscle behind the effort or created relationships with other employers to make a pathway into the clinic. “They set out to make health care more affordable and convenient for their customers. But to do that you need volume. … It takes volume or a different pricing structure, to make it work, and Walmart, in the end, had neither calibrated correctly.” 

A missed opportunity for rural America

Sanders says the business model’s constraints have even undermined one of the retail clinic concept’s great promises: health-care delivery to rural areas.

“Walmart tried to go into rural areas where providers were scarce and to meet a community need; I think it is a great idea because everyone knows where the local Walmart is. But getting providers to go to rural areas and work is really challenging. The quality of life and the things people can do in a small town are not as appealing as urban centers, so they pay providers a premium to work there,” Sanders said, and that is one more thing that eats into revenue. 

Retailers will continue to experiment with the model.

Dollar General, for example, has attempted a “workaround” by offering mobile clinics that visit some of its rural locations, and offer a variety of minor medical services.

Amazon’s recent launch of One Medical, which features a $9-a-month subscription charge for existing Prime members, offers another way to make money.

“They get your cash whether you end up using the service or not, and it is a good price if you need the care,” said Virgil Bretz, CEO of Washington-based fintech health platform MacroHealth. The care is virtual, but you can walk in if you are near a One Medical facility. Unlike most models that make money when patients come, “Amazon makes more money if you don’t show up. So there is something a little different about this retail model,” Bretz said.

In-store health clinics can be profitable and viable, and retailers are experimenting with piecemeal approaches tailored to the local market. Walgreens recently announced the opening of a handful of in-store health clinics in Connecticut, which will be run by Hartford HealthCare, with the clinics being called  “Hartford HealthCare at Walgreens.” Patients will be able to go beyond typical small-scale clinic services and tap into Hartford’s larger network of specialists and care options. 

And in Phoenix, a Be Well Health Clinic operates in a Walgreens near the campus of Arizona State University, catering just to sexual health issues.

“The common thread is it is a locally-based partnership with a local provider with the shared goal of offering convenience and access,” said a Walgreens spokesperson.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Little Clinics, which operate inside Kroger, is shifting services to focus on senior care.

Walmart and Kroger did not respond to requests for comment.

This is all part of what Hoff calls “health care 3.0,” a continuing disruption and evolution of primary care delivery based on market and customer needs, and including retail clinics. New models will emerge, and not every model will work.

Every several years, there is a run of outsiders trying to make changes to health care, good and bad,” Bretz said. Inevitably, they “hit the brick wall of the reality of just how complex health care can be.”

Corrections: Walgreens has a 53% stake in VillageMD, which was reduced as part of a reorganization. Walmart disputes press reports indicating it planned to open 4,000 clinics over a decade. Separately, Virgil Bretz is CEO of MacroHealth.

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It was a strong week for retail earnings. That doesn’t spell a consumer comeback

A Foot Locker, Inc. store. 

Courtesy of: Foot Locker, Inc.

Retail’s biggest winners during first-quarter earnings aren’t thriving because consumers are suddenly spending more on discretionary goods — it’s because they’re executing well and cash-strapped shoppers are choosing them over competitors. 

If there’s one takeaway from results posted by the largest U.S. retailers over the last few weeks, it’s that shoppers are still spending — but being far more selective about where.

Feeling the brunt of sticky inflation, high interest rates and an economy that feels tougher than it may actually be, consumers are prioritizing purchases that have the right combination of value, convenience and fun.

Companies like Abercrombie & Fitch, TJX Companies and Gap impressed Wall Street with their results, while others like Kohl’s, American Eagle and Target disappointed.

Take Gap and Foot Locker — two unlikely winners that posted results on Thursday. Both retailers are in the midst of ambitious turnaround plans and are performing better than expected because of new strategies they’ve implemented. 

Gap posted positive comparable sales for all four of its brands — Athleta, Old Navy, Banana Republic and its namesake banner — for the first time in “many years,” beating Wall Street’s expectations across the board, the company said. 

For years, Gap had been losing market share to buzzy competitors. But under new CEO Richard Dickson, the marketing guru credited with reviving the Barbie franchise, the apparel chain has focused on financial rigor, brand storytelling and product development. In under a year, Gap’s sales and profits have meaningfully improved, and its brands are beginning to be part of the cultural conversation again.

A few weeks ago, actor Anne Hathaway went to a Bulgari party wearing a white Gap shirt dress that had been designed by the company’s new creative director, Zac Posen. Critically, Gap dropped the $158 dress to consumers, and it sold out within hours. This combination of marketing and exclusive product drops is what Gap had long been lacking, and what competitors had already been doing. 

Foot Locker had declined over the last couple of years, but with the right combination of new strategies and a little bit of luck, its turnaround is showing signs of life

Under CEO Mary Dillon, Foot Locker has worked to change its stores, where it does more than 80% of its sales. It has tried to create not only a better shopping experience for consumers but also a better place for its critical brand partners.

Instead of two walls of shoes with competing brands mixed together, Foot Locker is changing its fleet so the brands have their own unique displays. Its new “store of the future” concept at a New Jersey mall that brings that strategy to life has become its best performing store in North America in just a few weeks, Dillon told CNBC, adding that brands are thrilled with the new design. 

The shift couldn’t have come at a better time. Years into Nike’s strategy to cut out wholesalers and sell directly to consumers, the retailer is realizing it went too far and is now changing course.

With refreshed stores and better product displays, consumers are converting more, too, and paying full price — even Foot Locker’s lower-income shopper. 

“Our consumer … this is a category that is very important to them. So when people have discretionary income, it may be limited, but you’re gonna prioritize where you spend it, right?” said Dillon. “We’re proving that people are willing to spend full price, but you have to have the right products and serve it up in a way that makes it enticing, right? So that’s where the whole customer experience really matters.” 

Elsewhere, Dick’s Sporting Goods posted a solid first-quarter report Wednesday, as executives said average selling prices and transactions rose and that they saw no signs of consumers trading down for cheaper options. That may not mean shoppers are spending more broadly, though: Dick’s has long been considered a best-in-class operator that offers a solid shopping experience, meaning it can win even when consumers are picky with their spending.

Denim wars

Two retailers that didn’t have great quarters — American Eagle and Kohl’s — tell a story of executing poorly or missing out on trends. 

American Eagle handily beat earnings estimates thanks to a new strategy designed to boost profitable growth, but it fell short on revenue and issued cautious guidance that was slightly below Wall Street’s expectations. 

American Eagle president and executive creative director Jennifer Foyle told CNBC that the brand is working to cut out items that aren’t landing with shoppers and dig down into the ones that are. She said the retailer was overly focused on jeggings in the past but now, low-rise, baggy fits are in. 

During a store visit at the American Dream mall in New Jersey on Thursday, an associate told CNBC that the location didn’t have the low-rise, baggy fit in-stores, and they were only available online. Meanwhile, there was a wall of jeggings. Still, denim was a strong performer for the company during the quarter, and it had a variety of other styles that resonated with customers at the location, the company said.

Denim is having a moment with shoppers. Search levels for denim are hitting peaks in a 20-year data set, particularly for categories like tops and dresses, according to a Morgan Stanley research note. 

Kohl’s is missing the mark in a far more meaningful way. The retailer posted dismal numbers on Thursday, as both earnings and revenue fell well short of expectations. It cut its full-year forecast and its shares plunged more than 20%, the stock’s biggest single-day percentage decline ever.

The weak results illustrated a challenge the retailer is still contending with: Keeping up with trends and staying relevant. 

CEO Tom Kingsbury told CNBC he expects the “head-to-toe” denim trend to play a role in the back half of the year, but it could already be out of style by the time Kohl’s gets around to adding the clothing items to its shelves.

“Denim is OK business for us. I mean it’s really not the most important time for denim,” said Kingsbury. “We’re selling shorts and tees. And more, you know, warm weather product.” 

Gap, one of the longtime denim leaders, didn’t seem to be concerned about denim going out of favor because the weather is warmer. CEO Dickson said the company is getting ready to launch its “exclusive lightweight denim fabric” dubbed “Ultra Soft” in time for the summer.

Failing to chase trends has been an ongoing issue for the aging department store Kohl’s. Kingsbury told CNBC in March that Kohl’s used to buy product for the juniors department catering to teen girls — one of the most trend-driven areas of its stores — 12 to 14 months in advance. When the apparel hit the sales floor, it was “dead on arrival.”

In an age where viral TikTok videos dictate the life and death of trends, it’s more important than ever for retailers to stay on top of what’s working with customers and what isn’t. They’re not just competing with legacy players, they’re also vying for customers with innovative yet controversial upstarts like Chinese-linked Shein, which can go from an idea to an online product in a matter of weeks.

That’s a far cry from the lead times at Under Armour, where it currently takes about 18 months to get a product from an idea to a showroom floor. During an earnings call with analysts on May 16, CEO Kevin Plank called the system “just plain uncompetitive in the 2024 landscape” as he laid out a plan to streamline the process

Meanwhile, Abercrombie & Fitch posted another stellar set of results, even as it begins to lap tougher comparisons. It has posted torrid growth in part because the company is responsive to its customers and a has nimble supply chain that has allowed it to chase trends quickly and efficiently. 

It posted its strongest first quarter in history, and now expects sales to grow 10% in fiscal 2024, up from previous guidance of between 4% and 6%. 

CEO Fran Horowitz told CNBC that low-rise, baggy jeans are also uber-popular with its customers. During a recent visit by CNBC to its Hollister store just a short walk from American Eagle’s outpost, plenty of those style of jeans were on display for shoppers as soon as they walked into the store.

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Ulta CEO says e-commerce sites can do more to stop the sale of stolen goods

Read CNBC’s full investigation into the alleged organized theft groups that police say are stealing and reselling items from retailers including Ulta Beauty, T.J. Maxx and Walgreens.

Faced with sophisticated organized retail crime rings that investigators say have targeted his company, Ulta Beauty CEO Dave Kimbell is laying some blame on e-commerce sites.

In the first in-depth interview given by a retail CEO about organized theft, Kimbell responded to a monthslong CNBC investigation that showed how police broke up what they say is a professional network of thieves who used Amazon to resell millions in cosmetics stolen from Ulta stores and other retailers across the U.S.

While Kimbell wouldn’t comment directly about Amazon, he said online marketplaces are “part of the problem.”

“[Online marketplaces] give more scale and more opportunity for people to liquidate this product,” Kimbell told CNBC in an on-camera interview. “You used to have to sell stolen goods at flea markets or out of the trunk of your car, or maybe just locally. Now, you have more sophisticated tools to have a broader reach across the country or even internationally.”

As part of an investigation into retail crime rings and the actions companies and law enforcement are taking to crack down on the problem, CNBC followed a case that involved Michelle Mack, a San Diego woman whom prosecutors accuse of using her Amazon digital storefront to resell goods stolen from stores.

The 53-year-old mother of three and her husband, Kenneth Mack, were charged with conspiracy to commit organized retail theft, grand theft and receipt of stolen property in connection with the alleged crime ring. During a raid at her California mansion in December, California Highway Patrol and Homeland Security agents say they found $387,000 in suspected stolen goods, most of which had come from Ulta. Investigators say her crime ring brought in millions of dollars over more than a decade. Both Michelle Mack and Kenneth Mack have pleaded not guilty. 

For Kimbell, the scale of such an operation wasn’t surprising.

“Unfortunately, I’m not that shocked because we’ve seen it in other parts of the country,” said Kimbell. “The magnitude of this one is significant. But this is what’s happening, and this is the environment in which we’re operating.”

Ulta Beauty CEO Dave Kimbell said online marketplaces need to do more to prevent the sale of stolen goods.

CNBC

Kimbell said he doesn’t think the onus is on consumers to evaluate whether a product they are buying from an online marketplace is stolen. Many shoppers may not even consider that the products could be stolen from one retailer and sold by another, he said, adding it’s a largely online phenomenon.

“That doesn’t happen in brick-and-mortar [stores]. You wouldn’t come into a retailer and see somebody [at] a table in front [selling] stolen goods,” Kimbell said. “We shouldn’t have an environment where it’s possible to steal from one retailer and [have it] end up on any other platform, any other large-scale, mainstream platform.”

Anyone who sells products online “should be committed to ensuring that nothing that they sell is stolen goods,” Kimbell said.

“I can tell you with 100% certainty, nothing that we sell at Ulta.com or any online platform is product that’s been stolen from another retailer,” he said. “There are tools, there’s data, there’s analytics, there’s capabilities that we collectively have that we could try to take even more action.”

Amazon declined CNBC’s request for an interview but said in a statement the e-commerce giant has “zero tolerance for the sale of stolen goods.” An Amazon spokesperson said the company invests $1 billion annually and employs “thousands of people” to combat fraud, including detection and prevention tools.

The spokesperson said Amazon works with law enforcement and other retailers to “stop bad actors and hold them accountable.”

In the Mack case, Amazon said it did not receive signals that would have indicated the seller was offloading stolen goods. Mack’s page was taken down after her arrest.

How bad is organized retail crime?

It’s unclear exactly how big of a problem organized retail crime is. The National Retail Federation and the Retail Industry Leaders Association say not every instance is reported, tracked or tallied.

According to the most recent NRF survey on shrink — the industry term for lost inventory from damage, theft or other sources — the total value of goods stolen in external theft instances totaled $40.5 billion in 2022, representing 36.15% of total shrink, compared with 37% in 2021.

Ulta Beauty is one of a number of retailers that have started to discuss retail crime as a problem but haven’t quantified how it is affecting their businesses. Ulta Beauty Chief Financial Officer Scott Settersten and Chief Operating Officer Kecia Steelman have discussed theft or organized retail crime specifically on earnings calls or at investor conferences. 

Ulta Beauty said it aims to have all of its fragrances locked up in stores in the first few months of this year. Fragrance has been one of the hardest-hit categories for the retailer because of its high value and the relative ease of reselling it, Kimbell said.

The CEO didn’t quantify the rise of organized retail crime his company has seen, but he said “it has definitely gotten worse.”

“Retail crime has been part of the retail industry forever … but what we’ve seen over the last few years, really the last couple of years, is a significant elevation,” he said.

Retail executives are increasingly worried about a rise in violence associated with theft, according to the NRF survey, with 81% reporting an increase in violence and 28% reporting that their company has closed a specific location because of crime. Ulta said it has not yet closed a store because of crime.

Kimbell said he is particularly concerned about how the rise in crime affects Ulta’s 50,000 employees across 1,400 stores around the country.

“These situations … they’re not fun … they’re threatening; they’re intimidating,” Kimbell said. “They can be traumatic.”

– Additional reporting by Ali McCadden.

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Inside the organized crime rings plaguing retailers including Ulta, T.J. Maxx and Walgreens

In a tony suburban enclave in the San Diego foothills, police say, an organized retail crime “queenpin” had built an empire.

Tucked behind the stone walls of her 4,500-square-foot Spanish-style mansion, Michelle Mack had stockpiled a small fortune in cosmetics that had been stolen from Ulta and Sephora stores across the country, authorities said. 

Police don’t suspect that Mack, 53, took the items herself. Instead, they say, she pulled the strings from the shadows, employing a network of around a dozen women who stole the items for her so she could resell them on Amazon.

Michelle Mack’s home in Bonsall, California, Dec. 6, 2023.

CNBC

With their airfare, car rentals and other travel expenses paid by Mack, the suspects committed hundreds of thefts up and down the California coast and into Washington, Utah, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, Illinois, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Ohio, investigators said. Mack selected which stores to target and what merchandise to take and the women were sent to clear out entire shelves of merchandise before making off with the stolen goods stuffed into Louis Vuitton bags, investigators said.

Investigators began referring to the theft group as the “California Girls” and considered Mack the crew’s ringleader. She made millions reselling the stolen items on Amazon to unwitting customers at a fraction of their typical retail price, investigators said, before she was arrested in early December.

Michelle Mack is taken into custody, Dec. 6, 2023.

CNBC

Law enforcement officials say Mack’s alleged theft ring is just one of the many that are plaguing U.S. retailers and costing them billions in losses annually. Their rise has led many companies to lock up merchandise, hire security guards and lobby lawmakers for stricter regulations.

These organized theft groups don’t typically carry out the splashy “smash and grab” robberies seen in viral videos. Instead, they pilfer goods quickly, quietly and efficiently. They often function within elaborate, organized structures that in some ways mimic the corporations they’re stealing from, police said.

CNBC has spent about eight months embedding with various law enforcement agencies and investigating theft groups to understand what organized retail crime looks like from the ground. In some cases, CNBC witnessed low-level shoplifting incidents involving people who appeared to be homeless or mentally ill. In other instances, CNBC saw takedowns of alleged organized theft groups that police said were reselling stolen merchandise at flea markets. Mack’s group, from her alleged network of professional thieves to her lucrative Amazon marketplace, was by far the most sophisticated one CNBC tracked alongside police.

California Highway Patrol officers arrest a retail crime suspect.

CNBC

But federal agents with Homeland Security Investigations, the Department of Homeland Security’s law enforcement branch, said some crime groups are even more elaborate — and theft is just one facet of their enterprises.

“We’re talking about operations that have fleets of trucks, 18-wheelers that have palletized loads of stolen goods, that have cleaning crews that actually clean the goods to make them look brand new,” said Adam Parks, an assistant special agent in charge at HSI, which is the main federal agency investigating retail crime.

“Just like any business, they’ve invested their capital into business assets like shrink wrap machines, forklifts,” Parks, who works out of HSI’s Baton Rouge, Louisiana, office, told CNBC in an interview. “That is what organized theft looks like, and it actually is indistinguishable from other e-commerce distribution centers.”

These theft groups in their myriad forms have become a thorn in the side of retailers big and small, prompting retailers to cite crime as the reason for lower profits, the inability to hire and retain staff, and the degradation of the in-store experience. They have also united politically divided Americans in their disdain for seeing everyday products locked up behind glass cases and witnessing brazen theft gone unchecked in stores.

Suspected stolen cosmetics found inside Michelle Mack’s home.

CNBC

Whether organized retail crime is actually rising is up for debate. Retailers including Target, Foot Locker, Walgreens and Ulta have said theft is a growing problem in recent years. But few have said how often it’s happening or how much money they’re losing from it, fueling accusations from some experts and analysts that they’re blaming crime in order to mask operational missteps.

The National Retail Federation estimates that retailers lost $40.5 billion to external theft, including organized retail crime, in 2022. That represented about 36% of total inventory losses — slightly lower than the 37% in 2021.

Even if theft has not meaningfully reduced some retailers’ profits, many have warned that crime can threaten the safety of workers and shoppers.

“The financial impact is real, but way more important is the human impact, the impact it has to our associates, the impact it has to our guests,” Ulta CEO Dave Kimbell told CNBC in a rare sit-down interview.

“It also impacts the communities in which we live,” he said. “If people don’t feel safe going in to shop in certain areas of a community, it really has an impact and can change neighborhoods and change communities over time.”

The government response to the issue has grown in turn. Both local and federal agencies have stepped up enforcement of laws targeting organized retail crime, and lawmakers are proposing and passing more measures that stiffen penalties for theft offenses.

HSI initiated 59 cases against organized theft groups in fiscal 2021, resulting in 55 indictments and 61 arrests, the agency said.

By the end of fiscal 2023, cases had more than tripled, to 199. Indictments spiked more than fivefold to 284, while arrests soared to 386, more than six times the number in 2021.

California Highway Patrol, which runs one of the most active retail crime task forces in the country, reports it made 170% more arrests for organized theft offenses in 2023 than it did in 2022.

It’s not clear whether organized theft offenses increased in that time or officials ramped up enforcement as the issue got more public attention and the retail industry’s lobbying engine pressed them to make it a priority.

CNBC embedded with teams from HSI and California Highway Patrol to witness four organized retail crime operations for this investigation. The probe is also based on more than a dozen interviews with law enforcement officers, retail leaders and customers, along with records, including court filings, company reports and property records.

New Orleans

On a sweltering Monday morning in July, about a dozen agents from HSI New Orleans gathered behind the U.S. Custom House, preparing for Operation French Quarter.

The officers were instructed to pose as shoppers inside three Walgreens stores and one CVS store in the area seeing high rates of theft, sometimes as many as 20 to 30 incidents per day, agents said.

As federal law enforcement agents who typically investigate terrorism, sex trafficking and gang leaders such as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the officers weren’t there to arrest people for petty theft. They had a clear directive: Find out who’s stealing and follow them out of the store to determine who else they may be working with.

“Obviously, the name of the game, guys and girls, is trying to get the bigger and better fish,” Assistant Special Agent in Charge Scott Robles, who led the operation, told the assembled officers. “We’re trying to identify the people who are in charge of this organized crime.”

Assistant Special Agent in Charge Scott Robles of Homeland Security Investigations addresses a team of undercover agents in New Orleans, July 17, 2023.

CNBC

At the bottom of organized retail crime rings are boosters — the people who go into stores and take the items. Robles was hoping the serial thieves targeting the drugstores could lead them to a larger operation.

“It can be anybody. It could be the mom with five kids just looking for extra money. It can be somebody that’s part of a team. … They may be getting paid with food, they may be getting paid with beer or drugs,” Robles said. “Some people get paid cash or they’re trying to work off a debt.”

Throughout the hourslong operation, agents identified at least one case that they say plainly showed organized theft.

Surveillance footage of the incident shows a man enter one of the Walgreens stores, head to the cosmetics aisle, remove a plastic shopping bag from his pants and calmly load it up with 17 jars of nail polish, valued at around $200. He then walked about a half mile away to the New Orleans Public Library’s main branch, where he sold the nail polish to a security guard, police said.

Federal agents briefly questioned the security guard, and the incident remains under investigation.

Beyond that instance, the vast majority of the thefts agents witnessed during the operation were low-level and petty, involving people who appeared to be homeless, mentally ill or transient. One man stole paper towels and then walked into a homeless shelter. A group took a case of beer and later went to a park to drink it. A woman stole a case of water, set up a stand to resell it and then defecated on the sidewalk.

Operation French Quarter showed how the lowest level of a retail crime operation can function, and how even small thefts can involve coordination among bad actors. Still, the incidents underscore the challenges investigators face when trying to build cases; they also demonstrate just how petty many thefts are, especially in urban areas with high rates of homelessness and addiction.

A Walgreens spokesperson told CNBC that the chain is “focused on the safety of our patients, customers and team members” and is taking steps to “safely deter theft” and “deliver the best patient and customer experience.”

“We are working closely with law enforcement, elected officials and community leaders to draw greater attention to and improve our response to retail crime,” the spokesperson said.

San Jose

Crates filled with unopened jugs of Gain, Tide and Downy detergent. Boxes stuffed with Gillette razors, Olay moisturizer and Allegra allergy pills. A pile of sparkly silver boots in sizes 8, 9 and 10 with the T.J. Maxx tags still on.

This is just some of the merchandise that California Highway Patrol found inside a home and storage container belonging to suspected members of an organized retail crime ring during a raid in November.

A bin filled with sparkly silver boots that police suspect an alleged San Jose, California, crime ring stole from T.J. Maxx.

Gabrielle Fonrouge

In all, investigators uncovered nearly 20,000 items valued at more than $550,000 across five locations connected with the group, according to CHP. Police suspect the majority of the items were stolen from T.J. Maxx stores and a variety of drugstores and grocery stores in and around the Bay Area.

CHP’s probe began in September, when investigators from TJX Companies, the owner of T.J. Maxx, reached out to the agency’s organized retail crime task force with information about a crime ring that it said was buying and reselling stolen goods — a “fencing” operation.

When boosters need to cash in on the items they take, they turn to fencers, who buy the products for pennies on the dollar and resell them at a margin Wall Street could only dream of, retail crime investigators have said.

Experts said retailers can have a hard time persuading law enforcement to investigate theft at stores because it is often considered a property crime, which police tend to see as less urgent than homicides, shootings and narcotics crimes.

To show law enforcement the scope of the problem, TJX investigators began conducting surveillance on the alleged crime ring. CHP agreed to take the case. Sgt. Manny Nevarez, who oversees all organized retail crime investigations in the Bay Area for CHP, told CNBC the group had hit stores in multiple counties in an effort to evade detection.

“They are not catching on that some of the retailers have their own loss prevention personnel and typically, if you target one store in San Jose, then the word gets out and then the next store is notified,” said Nevarez. 

Sgt. Manny Nevarez oversees organized retail crime investigations in the Bay Area for California Highway Patrol.

CNBC

Police learned that alleged members of the group were reselling the suspected stolen merchandise out of their homes and at the local Capitol Flea Market — a sprawling swap meet on the outskirts of San Jose. Officers also witnessed members of the crew receiving suspected stolen merchandise, transferring those goods to others in their network and exchanging money.

At the end of November, dozens of CHP investigators working with TJX descended on the five locations connected with the alleged fencing ring and carried out search warrants in a raid cops dubbed “Operation Kingsfall.” The locations included numerous homes along with a storage unit. 

“Nosotros somos policia,” the officers shouted in Spanish outside one of the homes. “Police, search warrant. Open the door with your hands up,” they continued, switching between English and Spanish before using a battering ram to knock down the door.

Officers from California Highway Patrol approach a home suspected to be connected with an organized retail crime ring in San Jose, California, Nov. 28, 2023.

CNBC

The location, an innocuous single-family home with Christmas decorations out front, looked like any other on the block. But on the sidewalk and grass near the property line sat dozens of discarded clothing tags, anti-theft devices, hangers and other retail store detritus.

Inside the home, CHP officers and TJX personnel found mountains of goods they suspect were stolen to resell, including bags of apparel with the tags still affixed, boxes of Huggies diapers, liquor and power tools.

By the time authorities completed the raids, they had enough suspected stolen merchandise to fill three 20-foot-long U-Haul trucks. A spokesperson for the Santa Clara County District Attorney said it is charging nine defendants in connection with the alleged crime ring.

Investigators examine suspected stolen merchandise connected with an alleged organized retail crime ring in San Jose, California.

CNBC

The law enforcement operation witnessed by CNBC showed the breadth of some of the fencing rings in the U.S. and how flea markets can play a role in the sale of stolen goods. Capitol Flea Market didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

“There’s certain crimes that come up where the public reaches a point where they’re like, ‘We have had enough of this,’ right?” Lt. Michael Ball, who helped oversee the operation, told CNBC. “And this is one of those that’s reached that level where people are saying widely and shouting it all the way up to our governor’s office that they have had enough of this.”

In a statement, a TJX spokesperson said the company is “thankful” for CHP’s efforts and is taking organized retail crime “very seriously.” The spokesperson said TJX is “laser-focused on ways to mitigate theft in our stores.”

The company told CNBC it will not resell the recovered merchandise. If TJX considers the items to be in suitable condition, it will donate them to charities in the area where they were found, the company said. If it deems the products unsuitable, it will work to dispose of them “responsibly,” it said.

San Diego

When Donna Washburn started shopping for a Christmas gift for her daughter in December, she wanted to “splurge” and buy her a bottle of Nars foundation. But she couldn’t find it in stock at a store close to home.

So, like many consumers, she Googled the product. She saw it was available on Amazon and cost around $38 before tax, nearly 30% cheaper than its typical retail price of $52.

“I said, you know, ‘It’s Amazon, it’ll come fast.’ It was the beginning of December. So I really didn’t want to wait too much longer for Christmas,” Washburn told CNBC in an interview, adding she was told it would arrive by Dec. 11.

Donna Washburn bought a beauty product from Michelle Mack’s Amazon store that police suspect had been stolen.

CNBC

Unknown to Washburn, police say, that bottle of foundation had likely been stolen by the crew of boosters allegedly employed by Mack — the suspected retail crime mastermind accused of running an illicit business from her San Diego mansion.

The Christmas gift ultimately never arrived, because Mack was arrested before she could ship the package, which was one of many found in Mack’s residence by investigators.

“I pay attention, but not that much, you know?” said Washburn, a 63-year-old clinical education associate in St. Augustine, Florida. “I’m shopping from Amazon. Hopefully you can trust it. So now that we know better … we’ll think twice.”

Washburn had bought the foundation from an Amazon storefront dubbed Online Makeup Store, which Mack had opened in 2012. CNBC viewed it before it was taken down in late 2023.

Suspected stolen cosmetics found inside Michelle Mack’s home.

CNBC

On its face, Mack’s storefront looked no different from the millions of others on Amazon’s marketplace. It had 4.5 stars on more than 100 reviews, and featured cosmetics from popular brands such as Mac, Tarte and Charlotte Tilbury that shoppers can find in neighborhood beauty stores.

There was just one red flag: the prices. Many of the products for sale at Mack’s store were listed at a fraction of the typical retail price, including a $25 bottle of Estee Lauder foundation that typically retails for $52 and Too Faced mascara that typically goes for $29 and was being sold for $17.

The store brought in millions. Since 2012, Mack sold nearly $8 million in cosmetics through the storefront before it was shut down, and she brought in $1.89 million in 2022 alone, Amazon sales records provided to investigators show.

Mack could offer such low prices, police suspect, because her crew of boosters had stolen the products in hundreds of incidents over more than a decade. Some of the thefts brought in around $2,000 in merchandise while others netted as much as $50,000 worth of merchandise, prosecutors said.

Mack’s business was humming along ahead of the holiday shopping season until the carefully crafted empire police say she built crumbled. On a cool December morning just before dawn, a convoy of CHP and HSI agents, armed with a search warrant, raided her sprawling mansion.

Mack, dressed in a baby pink pajama set and a pair of fuzzy mule slippers, was handcuffed and put into a police car as her teenage daughters stood in the driveway, watching.

Inside her garage, investigators found what they described as a “mini-store” — shelves and shelves of beauty products, sunglasses and designer bags organized in neat bins and categorized by product. They also found hundreds of postmarked yellow envelopes destined for unwitting customers, including Washburn, with “Online Makeup Store” marked as the return address.

Police recovered nearly 10,000 items worth a total of more than $387,000, CHP said.

A California Highway Patrol evidence photo of suspected stolen goods taken from the garage of Michelle Mack, who is accused of masterminding an organized retail crime network from her home in San Diego.

Source: California Highway Patrol

A California Highway Patrol evidence photo of suspected stolen goods taken from the garage of Michelle Mack, who is accused of masterminding an organized retail crime network from her home in San Diego.

Source: California Highway Patrol

A California Highway Patrol evidence photo of suspected stolen goods taken from the garage of Michelle Mack, who is accused of masterminding an organized retail crime network from her home in San Diego.

Source: California Highway Patrol

In February, California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a total of 140 felony charges against Mack; her husband, Kenneth Mack; and seven other alleged members of the crew. The charges included conspiracy to commit organized retail theft, grand theft and receipt of stolen property. The defendants have all pleaded not guilty. CNBC contacted each defendant multiple times for comment, but none of them responded.

“This is a multimillion-dollar criminal scheme. It was complex. It was orchestrated,” Bonta said when announcing the charges. “We are not talking about garden-variety shoplifting.”

Court records filed in connection with the case provide a rare glimpse into the inner workings of an alleged organized retail crime ring. They show text messages between the suspects and details about the operation.

“I’m not stealing regular I’m going to start filling up my bag quick. So I want to know stuff I can grab in bulks too,” Kimora Lee Gooding texted Michelle Mack on Jan. 7, 2023.

Between Jan. 30 and Feb. 16, 2023, Gooding committed at least 10 separate thefts at Ulta stores across California, prosecutors allege in court records. In each case, Gooding took more than $950 worth of goods, the records say.

On Feb. 21, a few days after Gooding’s string of thefts, Mack sent her a screenshot of “Online Makeup Store” with an address she could ship the stolen products to. It was the same business address that was listed on Mack’s Amazon page before it was shut down, and traced back to a post office box a few miles from her home.

“Even without lancome we still did well,” Michelle Mack texted her husband two days later, allegedly referencing a prestige cosmetics brand owned by L’Oreal.

Soon, orders were pouring into Michelle Mack’s Amazon store.

California Highway Patrol Officer Andrew Barclay outside Michelle Mack’s home during her arrest.

Scott Zamost

“Lots of orders let’s get shipping,” Kenneth Mack texted Michelle Mack alongside an image that showed a bin full of paper.

By July 8, it appeared that the haul Gooding and others had allegedly brought in had dried up. Michelle Mack needed more things to sell.

“Did you get some new girls?” Michelle Mack texted Alina Franco, another person charged in connection with the theft crew. “I really need product so if you have anything please let me know.”

A day later, two more thefts connected to the ring were committed and many more followed, prosecutors said.

In addition to Ulta and Sephora, the theft organization targeted a range of other retailers, including Macy’s-owned Bloomingdale’s, Prada, Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, and Luxottica’s Sunglass Hut and LensCrafters, prosecutors said.

Sephora and Bath & Body Works declined to discuss the case with CNBC. Victoria’s Secret, Macy’s, Prada, Sunglass Hut and LensCrafters didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Despite the recent surge of headlines and commentary on the topic, organized theft groups have long operated around the world. But retail industry leaders and some law enforcement officials argue the rise of online marketplaces and e-commerce has caused such incidents to increase or have made it easier for theft groups to operate.

“There’s an ease of distribution that has become even more prevalent for stolen goods through online marketplaces. … You used to have to sell stolen goods at flea markets or out of the trunk of your car or maybe just locally,” said Ulta’s Kimbell. “Now, you have more sophisticated tools to have a broader reach across the country or even internationally.”

Ulta Beauty CEO Dave Kimbell said online marketplaces need to do more to prevent the sale of stolen goods.

CNBC

While Kimbell didn’t name Amazon specifically, he said online marketplaces are “part of the problem” and should be using the data, analytics and other technology available to them to be more “proactive” in shutting down bad-actor sellers.

“We shouldn’t have an environment where it’s possible to steal from one retailer and [have it] end up on any other platform, any other large-scale, mainstream platform” that people consider legitimate, said Kimbell.

Bonta called on Amazon and other marketplaces to “do more.” He said they could inform law enforcement, or at least talk to a seller, when red flags such as unusually cheap goods pop up.

“If you freeze out the demand and remove the market by closing out the marketplace where the stolen goods are so easily sold, you make organized retail crime as an organized crime less attractive. And we need to create barriers, instead of ease, for the ability to commit these crimes,” Bonta said in an interview.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta discusses Michelle Mack’s case in an interview on Feb. 16, 2024.

CNBC

In response, an Amazon spokesperson said that the company has “zero tolerance for the sale of stolen goods” and that the company invests more than $1 billion annually in preventing fraud and abuse.

“We leverage sophisticated detection and prevention solutions across our stores and fulfillment operations, allowing us to quickly spot a range of organized retail crime (ORC) schemes,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

The spokesperson said Amazon supports efforts to trace items throughout the supply chain and investigates allegations of stolen merchandise to find out how products were obtained.

“When we identify an issue, we work closely with law enforcement, retailers, and brands to stop bad actors and hold them accountable, including withholding funds, terminating accounts, and making law enforcement referrals,” which have led to arrests, product seizures and the disruption of retail crime rings, the spokesperson wrote.

The company said it assisted with the investigation into Michelle Mack’s alleged theft crew and provided evidence to investigators. It said it’s “pleased” the suspects were arrested because it “sends a strong message that the sale of stolen goods has severe consequences.”

Consumers, many of whom are hungry for deals as they contend with lingering inflation and high interest rates, may feel that buying stolen goods is a victimless crime, experts say.

Michael Krol, HSI’s special agent in charge, disagrees with that idea. He said not only does theft lead to higher prices for consumers but also the items they’re buying could be unsafe because of how they were stored or otherwise manipulated.

“Those items might not have the quality assurance and compliance that we expect in the United States. Baby formula, your medicines … [Consumers] could be buying baby formula that’s expired by three months,” said Krol.

The Inform Consumers Act, which took effect in June, was designed to curb the sale of stolen, counterfeit or otherwise harmful products on online platforms by requiring marketplaces to verify and share identifying information on certain third-party sellers.

The law was designed to prevent the exact type of illicit business Michelle Mack is accused of conducting on Amazon. If sellers are required to provide their contact information to marketplaces and on their listings, bad actors may be deterred from selling illicit goods.

However, Michelle Mack’s business name and an address belonging to it had been verified and was publicly available on her seller’s page. She’d already been on the platform for more than a decade by the time the Inform Act rolled around.

The verification process that Amazon conducted for Michelle Mack’s store after the Inform Act passed wasn’t enough to raise the company’s suspicions, either.

“In this instance, we did not receive signals to identify the seller was engaged in selling stolen goods,” Amazon said.

As part of the law, marketplaces are also required to provide a way for people to report suspicious product listings. But the law doesn’t require the marketplaces to do anything with that information.

“Amazon works hard to ensure our store is a safe and trusted place for shoppers,” Amazon says on a page where people can report suspicious listings. “If you believe any product, seller or other activity in our store is suspicious, please report this using one of the below methods.”

“While we are not able to respond directly to each report,” it says, “we appreciate your feedback.” 

— Additional reporting by Ali McCadden  

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Gap shares pop as company’s holiday earnings blow past estimates, Old Navy returns to growth

A general view of an Old Navy store. 

Gap Inc.

Gap’s largest banner Old Navy returned to growth for the first time in more than a year during its holiday quarter as the retailer delivered earnings on Thursday that came in well ahead of Wall Street’s expectations. 

Sales at Old Navy grew 6% to $2.29 billion, and Gap’s overall gross margin surged 5.3 percentage points to 38.9% thanks to fewer markdowns and lower input costs. Analysts had expected a gross margin of 36%, according to StreetAccount. 

Shares of Gap jumped about 5% in extended trading following the report.

Here’s how the retailer did in its fourth fiscal quarter compared with what Wall Street was anticipating, based on a survey of analysts by LSEG, formerly known as Refinitiv:

  • Earnings per share: 49 cents vs. 23 cents expected
  • Revenue: $4.3 billion vs. $4.22 billion expected

The company’s reported net income for the three-month period that ended February 3 was $185 million, or 49 cents per share, compared with a loss of $273 million, or 75 cents per share, a year earlier.

Sales rose slightly to $4.3 billion, up about 1% from $4.24 billion a year earlier. Like other retailers, Gap benefited from a 53rd week during fiscal 2023 and without it, sales would’ve been down during the quarter. The extra week contributed about four percentage points of growth during the fiscal fourth quarter, the company said. 

Comparable sales during the quarter were flat, compared to estimates of down 1.1%, according to StreetAccount. In-store sales were up 4% while online sales decreased 2% and represented 40% of total revenue. 

The retailer decreased inventory by 16% during fiscal year 2023, and with those levels now in check, Gap is working to hold the line on promotions and drive full price selling.

During the quarter, Gap saw higher average selling prices across all of its brands, and it expects to grow its gross margin by at least a half percentage point in fiscal 2024.

“We were the authorities of taking on-trend basics, expressing it in ways that drove cultural conversations. At its best, we were a pop culture brand that did much more than sell clothes and as you know, we all know, we lost our edge. We devolved from a pop culture brand to a clothing retailer, and today we’re moving again,” CEO Richard Dickson told CNBC in an interview.

“We’re getting our vibe back.”

Staging a turnaround

Headed into the holiday season, Gap struck a cautious tone with its outlook as it warned of an “uncertain consumer environment,” and on Thursday, it reiterated those concerns. 

In the current quarter, it expects sales to be roughly flat, compared to estimates of down 0.2%, according to LSEG. For the full year, it expects sales to also be roughly flat, on a 52-week basis, compared to estimates of up 0.5%, according to LSEG. 

“I think we have to look at 2023 where we did see a lot of volatility and uncertainty in the environment. We have inflation, student loan payments, high interest rates, we had dwindling consumer savings. Now fortunately, despite many predictions to the contrary, we didn’t see a recession in the year but our industry was definitely affected,” said Dickson.

“While the apparel market is currently expected to decline in 2024, there are always winners in every market, and we’re seeing the consumer react to newness,” he said. “We’re seeing innovative marketing drive traffic, and it’s inspiring us to believe that we are on the right track with our reinvigoration playbook.”

It’s been a little over six months since Dickson, the former Mattel boss credited with re-igniting the Barbie brand, took over as Gap’s chief executive, and in that time, he’s focused on breathing relevancy back into the retailer’s legacy brands and getting them back to growth. 

Last month, Gap announced it had tapped fashion designer Zac Posen to be its creative director and Old Navy’s chief creative officer. Given its size and contributions to revenue, Gap cannot succeed if Old Navy isn’t winning, and for more than a year, sales have been down even at a time when consumers are hungry for bargains and affordable options. 

Posen, who got his start designing couture gowns and specializes in women’s dresses, is a key hire to Dickson’s executive team. He helps fill in the gaps when it comes to design and apparel, which are areas where Dickson lacks expertise as he’s spent the majority of his career at a toy company. He’ll also play a key role in reigniting cultural relevance across Gap, said Dickson.

“His creative expertise, and his clarity on culture, you know, they’ve consistently evolved American fashion, making him a great fit for the company as we look to energize our culture of creativity and we look to reinvigorate these storied brands,” said Dickson. “His role as chief creative officer at Old Navy is really to harmonize, orchestrate and dial up the storytelling across product and marketing.”

Prior to Posen’s appointment, Dickson hired Eric Chan, the former CFO of the LA Clippers, to be Gap’s chief business and strategy officer. He also hired his former colleague Amy Thompson, Mattel’s former chief people officer, to take on the same role at Gap. 

Banana and Athleta lag

On the back end, Gap has made improvements in growing its gross margin and streamlining its cost structure, but it’s been grappling with a steep decline in sales across its four brands: its eponymous banner, Old Navy, Athleta and Banana Republic. 

Gap and Old Navy have seen some signs of progress but Athleta and Banana Republic have been dragging on the overall business. 

When it comes to Banana, Dickson told CNBC he is “encouraged by the brand’s aesthetic direction” but said it’s going to take time to build back its momentum.

“We gotta get really strong in fixing the fundamentals and strengthening these fundamentals in order to drive more consistent results,” said Dickson. “And that’s what we’re really going to be focused on, our day to day execution, building upon the insights that we’re learning.”

Athleta is still in a state of recovery after numerous leadership shifts and a number of missteps when it came to designing the right type of product in the right styles and colors. It’s also missed the mark in its stores and its marketing, said Dickson.

In August, Athleta named former Alo Yoga President Chris Blakeslee its next CEO, and Dickson said the brand has made strides since he’s come aboard.

“We started the year with a much cleaner palette and we’ve seen early successes in these new arrivals at full price and we’re getting encouraged by the consumer’s reaction,” said Dickson. “I really like where the team is going. We’ve got a new drop strategy, which they’ve been testing, there’s new innovation, color has started to enter the stores and reacted really well.”

Here’s a closer look at each brand’s performance during the fourth quarter:

  • Old Navy: Sales were up 6% to $2.29 billion while comparable sales were up 2%, ahead of estimates of up 1%, according to StreetAccount. 
  • Gap: Sales were down 5% to $1.01 billion, weighed down by selling the brand’s China business, while comparable sales were up 4%, well ahead of estimates of down 1.3%, according to StreetAccount. The brand saw strength in the women’s category. 
  • Banana Republic: Sales were down 2% to $567 million were down 2% while comparable sales were down 4%, better than the 6.7% decline analysts had expected, according to StreetAccount. The company noted that Banana has made progress in “elevating its aesthetic” but re-establishing the brand “will take time and there is work to be done to better execute many of the fundamentals.” 
  • Athleta: Sales were down 4% to $419 million while comparable sales were down a steep 10%. Gap noted that Athleta’s performance improved compared to the prior quarter, but said sales are sluggish as the brand looks to hold the line on pricing and lap a prior period of elevated markdowns. 

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of fashion designer Zac Posen’s name.

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February was a great month for Wall Street. These were our 5 best-performing stocks

Traders work on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, U.S., February 23, 2024. 

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

February was a strong month for stocks and the Club’s portfolio.

The advance came as investors parsed through fourth-quarter earnings results and fresh economic data, searching for clues about when the Federal Reserve will finally cut interest rates. The Nasdaq Composite led the march higher in February, gaining 6.1% and finishing the month at its first record close since November 2021. Meanwhile, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 both hit a series of all-time highs throughout the month, climbing 2.2% and 5.2%, respectively.

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Best Buy warns of layoffs as it issues soft full-year guidance

People walk past a Best Buy store in Manhattan, New York City, November 22, 2021.

Andrew Kelly | Reuters

Best Buy surpassed Wall Street’s revenue and earnings expectations for the holiday quarter on Thursday, even as the company navigated through a period of tepid consumer electronics demand.

But the retailer warned of another year of softer sales and said it would lay off workers and cut other costs across the business. CEO Corie Barry offered few specifics, but said the company has to make sure its workforce and stores match customers’ changing shopping habits. Cuts will free up capital to invest back into the business and in newer areas, such as artificial intelligence, she added.

“This is giving us some of that space to be able to reinvest into our future and make sure we feel like we are really well positioned for the industry to start to rebound,” she said on a call with reporters.

For this fiscal year, Best Buy anticipates revenue will range from $41.3 billion to $42.6 billion. That would mark a drop from the most recently ended fiscal year, when full-year revenue totaled $43.45 billion. It said comparable sales will range from flat to a 3% decline.

The retailer plans to close 10 to 15 stores this year after shuttering 24 in the past fiscal year.

One challenge that will affect sales in the year ahead: it is a week shorter. Best Buy said the extra week in the past fiscal year lifted revenue by about $735 million and boosted diluted earnings per share by about 30 cents.

Shares of Best Buy closed more than 1% higher Thursday after briefly touching a 52-week high of $86.11 earlier in the session.

Here’s what the consumer electronics retailer reported for its fiscal fourth quarter of 2024 compared with what Wall Street was expecting, based on a survey of analysts by LSEG, formerly known as Refinitiv:

  • Earnings per share: $2.72, adjusted vs. $2.52 expected
  • Revenue: $14.65 billion vs. $14.56 billion expected

A dip in demand, but a better-than-feared holiday

Best Buy has dealt with slower demand in part due to the strength of its sales during the pandemic. Like home improvement companies, Best Buy saw outsized spending as shoppers were stuck at home. Plus, many items that the retailer sells like laptops, refrigerators and home theater systems tend to be pricier and less frequent purchases.

The retailer has cited other challenges, too: Shoppers have been choosier about making big purchases while dealing with inflation-driven higher prices of food and more. Plus, they’ve returned to splitting their dollars between services and goods after pandemic years of little activity.

Even so, Best Buy put up a holiday quarter that was better than feared. In the three-month period that ended Feb. 3, the company’s net income fell by 7% to $460 million, or $2.12 per share, from $495 million, or $2.23 per share in the year-ago period. Revenue dropped from $14.74 billion a year earlier.

Comparable sales, a metric that includes sales online and at stores open at least 14 months, declined 4.8% during the quarter as shoppers bought fewer appliances, mobile phones, tablets and home theater setups than the year-ago period. Gaming, on the other hand, was a strong sales category in the holiday quarter.

In the U.S., Best Buy’s comparable sales dropped 5.1% and its online sales decreased by 4.8%.

During the quarter, traditional holiday shopping days were Best Buy’s strongest, CFO Matt Bilunas said on the company’s earnings call. Comparable sales were down 5% year over year in November but fell just 2% in December around the gift-giving holidays. January was the weakest month during the quarter with comparable sales down 12%, he said.

Barry said customers “were very deal-focused through the holiday season.” Sales on days known for deep discounts like Black Friday and the week of Cyber Monday matched expectations, but the December sales lull was worse than expected.

Demand was stronger than the company anticipated in the four days before Christmas.

Signs of ‘stabilization’

On the earnings call, Barry said Best Buy expects the coming year to be one “of increasing industry sales stabilization.”

She said the company is “focused on sharpening our customer experiences and industry positioning,” along with driving up its operating income rate. That metric is expected to improve in the coming year.

Strength in services revenue, which includes fees from its annual membership program, in-home installation and repairs, has helped to offset weaker demand for new items. It’s a growth area that the company expects will persist in the coming year.

Some gains in its service business came from a switch to My Best Buy, a three-tiered membership program that ranges in price from free to $179.99 per year depending on the perks and benefits.

The company removed home installations as a perk of that program, which Barry said on a call with reporters resulted in more people choosing to pay for that service.

As of the end of the fiscal year, My Best Buy had 7 million paid members. She said customers who belong to the program spent more at Best Buy than those who don’t.

Barry said Best Buy’s services will help the retailer stand out, especially as customers seek guidance as artificial intelligence becomes part of more devices.

The retailer has been waiting for customers to upgrade and replace their consumer electronics after the pandemic-induced wave. There are some signs that cycle has begun, Barry said on the earnings call. For example, she said, year-over-year comparable sales for laptops turned positive in the fiscal fourth quarter and have remained positive in the first quarter.

She cited other positive indicators, too, including cooling inflation and “green shoots” in the housing market. Sales at Best Buy are not directly correlated to the housing market, which has seen slower turnover, but home purchases do tend to spur appliance and TV purchases, she said.

Best Buy paid dividends of $198 million and spent $70 million on share buybacks during the period. On Thursday, the company said its board of directors had approved a 2% increase in the regular quarterly dividend to 94 cents per share, which will be paid in April.

As of Thursday’s close, Best Buy’s stock is up roughly 3% so far this year. The company has underperformed the approximately 7% gains of the S&P 500 during that period. Best Buy has a market value of about $17.4 billion.

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Walmart beats Wall Street’s holiday expectations as e-commerce sales soar

Walmart said Tuesday that quarterly revenue rose 6%, as shoppers turned to the big-box retailer throughout the holiday season and the company’s global e-commerce sales grew by double digits. 

The retail giant also announced Tuesday that it would acquire smart TV maker Vizio to accelerate growth of its advertising business. Walmart is acquiring the company for $2.3 billion, or $11.50 per share. 

In a CNBC interview, Chief Financial Officer John David Rainey said customers have still shown discretion with purchases. They are putting fewer items in their baskets but shopping more frequently, he said. Electronics, TVs, computers and some other expensive items have been a tougher sell, Rainey added.

Yet, he said even after the holiday rush, Walmart saw continued sales strength.

Here’s what Walmart reported compared with what Wall Street was expecting, based on a survey of analysts by LSEG, formerly known as Refinitiv:

  • Earnings per share: $1.80 adjusted vs. $1.65 expected
  • Revenue: $173.39 billion vs. $170.71 billion expected

In the three-month period that ended Jan. 31, Walmart’s net income fell to $5.49 billion or $2.03 per share, compared with $6.28 billion, or $2.32 per share, in the year-ago period.

Revenue increased from $164.05 billion in the year-ago period.

Walmart said it expects consolidated net sales to rise 4% to 5% in its fiscal first quarter. It also anticipates adjusted earnings of $1.48 to $1.56 per share on a pre-stock split basis.

For its fiscal 2025, the retailer expects consolidated net sales will climb 3% to 4%. Walmart anticipates adjusted earnings will be $6.70 to $7.12 per share on a pre-stock split basis.

Walmart shares closed 3% higher Tuesday after the company shared its results, outlook and acquisition news. Shares of Walmart are up more than 11% this year, outperforming the S&P 500, which is up about 4% during the same period.

Walmart’s e-commerce strength

Walmart has weathered high inflation better than many other retailers. It has used its value reputation to draw in families across income levels and has leaned into new ways to make money, such as selling ads, expanding its third-party marketplace and offering a subscription-based program called Walmart+.

Comparable sales, an industry metric also known as same-store sales, rose 4% for Walmart U.S. At Sam’s Club, comparable sales increased 1.9%, including fuel. 

Global e-commerce sales jumped 23% year over year, topping $100 billion in total. In the U.S., e-commerce rose 17% as shoppers used curbside pickup and got orders delivered to their homes.

Customer transactions increased 4.3% compared with the year-ago period in the U.S. However, average ticket, or the amount that a customer spent, declined slightly. 

Prices have fallen in some categories. Private brands made by Walmart, which tend to be cheaper, have gained popularity in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

CEO Doug McMillon said on an earnings call Tuesday that prices of general merchandise, a category that includes items such as clothing, are lower than a year ago and even two years ago for some things. For food, prices are lower for some items such as apples, eggs and deli snacks, but higher for other items such as asparagus and blackberries.

Prices of dry grocery items, paper goods and cleaning supplies are up mid-single-digit percentages compared to last year and high teens compared with two years ago.

Walmart also backed away from predictions of deflation. On the company’s third-quarter earnings call in November, McMillon said the company could soon face a deflationary environment, where prices not just stabilize, but also decline. He said those lower prices could help customers pay for more discretionary items.

On Tuesday, however, Rainey told CNBC that deflation seems less likely now. “The possibility overall [of deflation] still remains, but prices are more stable than where they were three months ago,” he said.

Profit push

One reason for Walmart’s earnings growth? The company is selling more than just cereal, socks and shampoo.

Walmart has shifted into more profitable businesses — and that new model is a major part of its future. For instance, the retailer makes money from packing and shipping online orders for sellers that are part of its third-party marketplace. It had a delivery business that drops off purchases from major companies such as Home Depot, and local shops such as bakeries.

It’s also selling more ads, posting gains for the business of about 33% globally and 22% in the U.S. year over year.

Rainey told CNBC that the Vizio acquisition will be “an accelerant” for the “high-margin, fast-growing part of our business.” By using the TV’s operating system, Walmart could not only show ads, but also have better data that tracks how customers engage with the ad and if it leads to purchases.

The company has also boosted efficiency by adding automation to distribution centers that replenish store shelves and fulfillment centers that keep up with online orders.

At an investor day last year, Walmart spoke about how it planned to grow profits faster than sales over the next five years.

On an annual basis, Walmart now expects to grow sales more than 5% and operating income more than 8% on average, Rainey told investors on Tuesday’s earnings call.

Walmart’s e-commerce business is not yet profitable, but Rainey said the company is getting closer. He said the cost of fulfillment has fallen 20% over the past year, as the company drops off more packages on each delivery route and sells related services, such as online ads.

Customers are shopping more on Walmart’s website and app, which helps create those denser delivery routes. Weekly active e-commerce customers grew 17% over the past year, he said.

Expanding stores, boosting dividend

As many other companies have announced cost cuts, Walmart has done the opposite. It announced in late January that it would open or expand more than 150 stores in the U.S. over the next five years. That’s on top of an aggressive plan to upgrade more than 1,400 of its existing Walmart stores to have a more modern look.

Stores that have gotten that fresh design have had higher sales within their four walls and lifted sales in the surrounding market, Rainey told investors on the earnings call. He said the renovated stores make more room for online pickup and delivery orders and have improved Walmart’s reputation with shoppers.

Along with those store investments, Walmart said it would raise store manager wages to an average of $128,000 per year and make managers eligible for a bonus of up to 200% of their base salary.

It also announced a 3-for-1 stock split in late January, as shares hovered near an all-time high.

On Tuesday, Walmart said it would reward shareholders, too. It is raising its dividend by 9% this year, the largest increase in more than a decade.

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New Macy’s CEO Tony Spring looks to revive a 166-year-old retailer fighting for relevance

Tony Spring speaks at an event unveiling the Macy’s new women’s apparel brand, On 34th, in July. Spring is former CEO of Bloomingdale’s and begins as Macy’s CEO in February 2024, succeeding longtime Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette, right.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

Inside its headquarters in New York City’s Herald Square, Macy’s got ready to unveil its newest women’s clothing brand. Its incoming CEO Tony Spring prepared for his own reveal.

Spring took the stage in mid-July in front of fashion influencers, reporters and Macy’s employees, standing beside his soon-to-be predecessor, Jeff Gennette. He was at the pinnacle of his career, making his first public in-person appearance since being named CEO-elect of the 166-year-old department store operator.

Yet where many top executives would have lapped up the limelight, the 58-year-old retail veteran and leader of Macy’s higher-end department store chain Bloomingdale’s kept his remarks brief. He spoke for less than two minutes, then quickly stepped aside for On 34th, the company’s new brand of women’s clothing and accessories, to get the spotlight.

Spring will step onto a bigger stage and inherit the iconic department store’s issues when he takes over the role of Macy’s CEO on Sunday. His push to revive the retailer will depend in no small part on his ability to curate strong brands and store designs — and let the products win over shoppers.

Among the company’s challenges, Spring will contend with inflation-weary shoppers who continue to watch their discretionary spending, confront lower employee morale after more than 2,000 recent layoffs and stare down a contentious battle with activist investors. Macy’s has lost cachet with younger shoppers and brands who see its sprawling stores and endless aisles of merchandise as a relic of the past.

Investors have taken notice. Macy’s stock closed at $18.63 per share Friday, giving it a market cap of $5.11 billion. Shares have fallen about 24% in the last year.

Spring will face existential questions about how Macy’s can stay relevant and grow rather than shrink, as competitors such as Amazon, T.J. Maxx and even Target and Walmart steal away sales. He will also lead Macy’s promising efforts to chase suburban shoppers with smaller stores in strip malls, expand its offerings of trendier exclusive brands and luxury names, and build on the strong performance of newer businesses such as its beauty chain, Bluemercury, and its off-price business, Backstage.

In CNBC interviews, current and former Macy’s employees, industry leaders and investors said Spring will bring a deep retail background, a merchant’s sharp eye and credibility with coveted national and global brands from his decades at Bloomingdale’s.

Yet they acknowledged the new CEO will have his hands full. Some expressed concern that as a longtime executive at the company, Spring won’t bring the same scrutiny an outsider would.

“When you have an internal appointment, you don’t tend to see that much shake-up in the wider team, and sometimes that’s needed,” said Neil Saunders, managing director of research firm GlobalData. “The biggest risk is just really that. Someone new comes in the post, but we just see a continuation of the same old strategies without much new thinking.”

Macy’s declined interview requests for this story, but Gennette praised Spring as the right person for the job when the company announced his retirement and his successor’s appointment in March. Gennette pointed to Bloomingdale’s strong results — the higher-end department store has outperformed the namesake Macy’s brand in recent years — and described Spring as “an ally and trusted partner in advancing Macy’s, Inc.’s strategies.”

“Tony consistently innovates for the customer, is an exceptional brand builder and an excellent talent developer who has strengthened our culture through his leadership,” he said in the news release.

‘A merchant at heart’

Spring’s ascension to the top role at Macy’s is the culmination of nearly four decades with the retailer. Fresh from graduation from Cornell University, he was hired by Bloomingdale’s in 1987 as an executive trainee in the White Plains, New York, store.

He moved up the ranks, ultimately becoming CEO of the higher-end department store in 2014.

Even as he rose, Spring described himself as committed to one of retail’s key building blocks: making sure stores draw customers in, invite them to linger and surprise them with beautiful displays and items they didn’t know they needed. It’s a touch shoppers and Wall Street believe Macy’s could use as it fights for relevance.

“I’m a former merchant,” he told the audience at the launch event for Macy’s “On 34th” brand in July. “I still consider myself a merchant at heart.”

Bloomingdale’s is known for having a knack for understanding customers and which brands to carry. The chain, which has 55 locations across the country, has been a crown jewel of its parent company despite its smaller size. It carries pricey and prominent luxury brands, including Theory, Sandro and Alice + Olivia, but also has popular and more affordable in-house brands, such as Aqua.

It has also drawn shoppers with limited-edition pop-ups and collections of merchandise that tap into the cultural zeitgeist or cater to the Instagram and TikTok generations, such as an exclusive Barbie-themed clothing line.

Macy’s namesake brand accounts for most of its stores and revenue, yet Bloomingdale’s and Bluemercury have seen better sales trends.

On CNBC’s “Mad Money” in October, Spring said his time at Bloomingdale’s reinforced “it’s all about curation of product and the delivery of a better experience for the customer.”

“Retail is theater,” he said in the interview.

He described Bloomingdale’s as “a growth vehicle” but said the company’s namesake brand can be one, too.

“We’re talking to different customers and we can obviously learn from one another without becoming one another,” he said.

GlobalData’s Saunders has criticized Macy’s for sloppy displays, bland merchandise and poor customer service at its namesake stores. He said after leading “the better-run part of the business” in Bloomingdale’s, Spring needs to bring those “softer skills” to Macy’s.

“Get some pride back into the business,” he said. “That might mean making some investments. It might mean putting back in visual merchandising teams. It might mean investing more in staff and labor hours, but I think it’s a decision worth taking. And it’s a relatively easy win.”

Spring will have tougher tasks, though, Saunders said. In a competitive industry, Macy’s needs a sharper identity to compete with specialty retailers, big-box stores and off-price players that often beat the department store on convenience, value and fashion, he said.

And, he added, Spring must take a hard look at the company’s real estate footprint to decide where it should shut stores, shrink locations or expand outside the mall.

Wooing investors and brands

In his new role, Spring will have to charm investors, shoppers and hot brands. It’s a delicate balance, as its efforts to boost sales, make the store experience more appealing to customers and win over investors hungry for profits could at times clash.

As its stock value has eroded, Macy’s has gotten smaller by most other key metrics, too. Over the past decade, the company has closed about a third of its namesake stores. Its annual net sales have fallen during that same period, from about $28 billion in 2013 to $24.4 billion in the last full fiscal year it has reported, which ended in late January 2023.

Macy’s struggles have turned the retailer into a target for the activist investors Spring will face down as he becomes CEO. Its board last month rejected a $5.8 billion proposal by Arkhouse Management and partner Brigade Capital Management to acquire the shares of the retailer that they don’t already own and take the department store operator private.

In an interview on CNBC after that rejection, Arkhouse managing partner Gavriel Kahane signaled that he hasn’t given up yet. He called on Macy’s to open up its books to the investors, or the firm will take the matter to shareholders, he said.

Certainly not done with pursuit of Macy's acquisition, says Arkhouse's Kahane

Investors will get their best glimpse into the health of the company Spring is inheriting in late February, when Macy’s is expected to report its holiday-quarter results and its outlook for the year ahead. In the previous quarter, the retailer said it expected same-store sales to decline by up to 7% in the fiscal year that ended in late January.

Though the company’s sales are sagging, Spring will take over promising pockets of the business, as well. Its smaller stores, which Macy’s is opening in a growing number of strip malls, have outperformed sales at its traditional, mall-based locations. After launching the women’s clothing brand On 34th, Macy’s plans to debut and refresh other lines that shoppers can find only at its stores and on its website. That private brand strategy has succeeded for other retailers, such as Target.

Spring’s career as an insider has raised concerns among some industry analysts. A Macy’s spokesperson said that while Spring came up through Macy’s, he has pushed for adding fresh perspectives to the retailer’s leadership team. Many of the company’s recent top hires have come from the outside.

Those include his successor at Bloomingdale’s, Olivier Bron, who was most recently CEO of department stores in Thailand; and Sharon Otterman, Macy’s new chief marketing officer, who came from Caesars Entertainment.

Having the right national brands will also shape Macy’s future success. It’s another area where Spring’s experience as a merchant could benefit the company.

Compared with rival Nordstrom, Macy’s has been slow to add younger and newer brands that can draw fashion-forward customers.

As Macy’s expands its third-party marketplace, some new brands have joined its website. One of those is Untuckit, a men’s apparel brand typically sold directly through its own stores and website.

Just ahead of the holiday season, the company’s clothing debuted on Macy’s website. It was Untuckit’s first meaningful push into wholesale, said the brand’s CEO and co-founder Aaron Sanandres.

Sanandres said he saw Macy’s as a way to reach shoppers who haven’t yet discovered Untuckit. Now, he said, it’s considering its next moves in wholesale — including the possibility of selling apparel at Macy’s stores.

Yet he said he has grappled with the same questions that other popular brands may have. Will merchandise get confined to a corner of Macy’s huge stores? Will its reputation take a hit from being carried by a retailer associated with old-school malls or 40%-off signs? Can it keep tight control over its own brand’s level of promotions?

“There are a lot of conversations around that, and it’s partly why we’re baby-stepping into the relationship to make sure we don’t see any negative pushback from our customer,” he said.

One of the most crucial parts of Spring’s job will be attracting millennial and Gen Z shoppers who don’t share the same loyalty as their parents and grandparents to Macy’s namesake stores and website, said Oliver Chen, an equity research analyst for TD Cowen.

Winning those shoppers over will come down to having better merchandise and a sense of style, he said.

“You need to be inspired by Macy’s,” he said. “The customer doesn’t necessarily want the cheapest thing from Macy’s. They want a nice, fashion-forward thing.”

Some of those shoppers are like Annie Rush. On a recent weekday, she zipped in and out of Paramus Park mall in New Jersey to make a purchase for one of her teenage sons.

Rush said she prefers to shop online, where she can search for what she wants with the help of filters. At a Macy’s store, the sea of options can be overwhelming, she said.

“Sometimes they offer too many things,” Rush said. “It’s like decision paralysis. You can’t find what you want or have to dig.”

With an Old Navy bag in hand, she cut through Macy’s only to get to the mall’s parking lot.

— CNBC’s Gabriel Cortes contributed to this report.

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Sweetgreen wants to be the ‘McDonald’s of its generation.’ This rival salad chain could beat it

The drive-thru entrance to a Salad and Go location.

Source: Salad and Go

When Sweetgreen went public two years ago, co-founder and CEO Jonathan Neman said the salad chain aspired to be the “McDonald’s of its generation.”

But another salad rival could beat Sweetgreen to the punch: Salad and Go.

Founded in 2013, the upstart chain is nearing its publicly traded rival’s store count, with more than 100 locations and counting. With backing from private equity firm Volt Investment, it has ambitious expansion plans for 2024 beyond its roots in the Southwest.

Salad and Go’s appeal comes in no small part from its affordability. One of its 48 ounce salads costs less than $7 and comes with chicken or tofu, while a comparable salad from Sweetgreen costs about $12.

As the chain plots an ambitious expansion path, its C-suite is packed with restaurant industry veterans, including former Wingstop CEO Charlie Morrison. He joined Salad and Go’s board in 2020. Two years later, Morrison took over as chief executive, departing Wall Street’s favorite chicken wing chain after a decade in favor of a little-known salad chain that then had only 50 locations.

“The brand was designed around the idea of completely rebuilding the supply chain, and fixing what I believe is broken today,” Morrison said at the annual ICR Conference earlier this month.

Since Morrison became chief executive, Salad and Go has more than doubled its footprint, which is now around 130 locations across Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma and Texas. Last year, the chain opened about a restaurant every week, and it plans to keep up that pace in 2024 and enter new markets such as Southern California. For reference, Sweetgreen has 220 open locations, as of Sept. 24.

Morrison said the company is currently profitable in “established mature markets.”

How Salad and Go works

A salad or wrap from Salad and Go starts at one of the chain’s commissary kitchens, where its produce is washed and its proteins are prepared. Those ingredients are then shipped to its 750-square-foot locations, which are roughly the same size as a typical restaurant kitchen. The restaurants have drive-thru lanes, but no indoor seating.

Its small footprint has helped the chain expand quickly with relatively low rent. Other industry disruptors, such as ghost kitchens and the coffee startup Blank Street Coffee, have used a similar real estate strategy to cut overhead costs.

Salad and Go customers order online or in those drive-thru lanes, and a team of two employees makes their customized salads and wraps.

The simplified restaurant kitchen features a walk-in cooler and cooling counters underneath the make lines where workers assemble orders. A few ingredients, such as the eggs for its breakfast burritos and avocados for its salads, are prepared on site, rather than in its commissaries.

But the Salad and Go locations lack the freezers, broilers, fryers, hoods and fire suppression systems that typical fast-food restaurants need — and are often a culprit for delays as locations wait on equipment inspections ahead of opening.

On average, a Salad and Go customer exits the drive-thru line in under four minutes, according to Morrison. Increasingly, its customers are picking up orders for more than just one meal.

“The unique thing about Salad and Go against any other [quick-service restaurant] brands out there is that we enjoy a two-daypart single occasion,” Morrison said. “You can show up at 6:30 in the morning and get your breakfast burrito, get your cold brew coffee or hot coffee, and get your salad for lunch during the same occasion.”

Replacing burgers, not salads

Charlie Morrison, CEO of Salad and Go, speaking on CNBC’s “Power Lunch” in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, on Dec. 5 2023.

Adam Jeffery | CNBC

As Salad and Go enters new territory, Morrison is confident that the chain’s salads have universal appeal.

“We’ve been able to put these stores in these differentiated markets, with different income levels, different levels of diversity, different focal points, and found that great performance quite consistent,” Morrison said.

Salad and Go’s first customers in a new market tend to be regular salad eaters anyway, but Morrison said the chain has also been able to attract other consumers because of its cheap prices and tasty food.

“What we see with our fans, with our guests, is this very strong loyalty and affinity,” Salad and Go Chief Marketing Officer Nicole Portwood told CNBC.

Portwood previously helped turn Tito’s Handmade Vodka from a craft distiller to the nation’s most popular vodka. Like Morrison, she started at Salad and Go as a member of its board before being tapped as its CMO in October.

Other salad players, such as Sweetgreen, Just Salad or Salata, are usually in the same markets as Salad and Go. Salad and Go isn’t the only chain to prioritize convenience for on-the-go customers. Sweetgreen has been opening restaurants with drive-thru lanes dedicated to digital orders.

But Morrison told CNBC that the chain doesn’t worry about those options, which usually charge at least double what his company does for their healthy fare.

“Our concept is not tailored to compete against them. It’s tailored to compete against eating occasions that are unhealthy for you, but otherwise you couldn’t afford to eat well,” he said.

In other words, Salad and Go is looking to take down fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s, which pulled its salads off menus during the Covid-19 pandemic and hasn’t brought them back yet.

Ambitions for thousands of restaurants

Salad and Go is looking to emulate fast-food rivals in other ways, too.

“We have expansion plans that will carry us well into the thousands of restaurants,” Morrison said. “Ultimately, we believe this brand has the potential for a very large footprint.”

Similar to Sweetgreen, Salad and Go owns rather than franchises its restaurants. That approach requires more capital — so do its commissaries, or central kitchens, as Salad and Go calls them. But Morrison said the kitchens mitigate labor challenges, requiring less training for its workers and fewer employees in its actual restaurants.

Today, Salad and Go runs two commissary kitchens: one in Phoenix, and the other in Dallas. The Texas kitchen was Salad and Go’s original prototype, and the chain plans to upgrade to an improved facility by this spring that can service as many as 500 locations in the future, including potential restaurants as far away as Atlanta.

For now, Salad and Go’s goals for the future are focused on building more restaurants and spreading the word about its salads. When asked about long-term plans for the company, such as an initial public offering, Morrison said all options are in play.

“It’s less of a concern now. The concern for us is just expanding the footprint and getting into the market, fulfilling our mission,” he said. 

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