Around Australia the weather has been patchy at best so far this season, with many wondering if summer will ever turn up and hang around once and for all.
If you think the lack of warmth in summer or cold in winter (for you skiers) is an irritation, spare a thought for those companies who depend on the seasons for their profits – and in turn the investors who hold shares in them.
One of the companies which is most obviously reliant on weather is Coca-Cola Amatil (ASX: CCL). The purveyor of its namesake cola, as well as other soft drinks, waters and juices (and beer, at least until the sale to SAB Miller (LSE: SAB) closes next year) does a roaring trade in the middle of summer when the heat is on.
There’s nothing like being outside on a hot day to work up a thirst, and the good people at Amatil stand ready to remind us we’re thirsty and provide an ice-cold solution to our little problem.
…and cold comfort
The flip side is that the business remains largely at the mercy of the elements. Sure, Coca-Cola Amatil has its finger in other pies, such as coffee and food, but the business is still leveraged to the weather. A temperature in the 30s is music to the ears of CEO Terry Davis and his troops, while cool, wet weather is sure to dampen both our thirst and their spirits.
Another business riding the waves of summer – if you’ll excuse the pun – is Billabong International (ASX: BBG). In the headlines over the last couple of days for all of the wrong reasons (a sales and profit decline will do that to you), one of the many headwinds facing the surf and skiwear company has been the unusually cool summer on the Australian east coast.
Even the weather is against them
Yes, weather an easy scapegoat for a company looking to explain a confidence-crushing profit downgrade, but is likely to be a legitimate cause of at least some of Billabong’s woes this year.
Billabong has long been a mass-market brand – no longer reliant just on the surfing crowd, having established itself as a casual fashion option around the world – and the changing seasons are usually a stimulus for consumers to update their wardrobes. Without the presence of ’t-shirt and shorts’ weather, and particularly with a reluctant global consumer, Billabong’s stores remain quieter than usual.
Other potential collateral damage of the so-far absent summer include other fashion retailers such as Specialty Fashion Group (ASX: SFH), the listed department stores David Jones (ASX: DJS) and Myer (ASX: MYR), right through to retailers of barbeques and sporting equipment.
Without a significant change in season to remind us, our wardrobes tend not to be replenished, we put off buying that new barbeque, and the beach-cricket set doesn’t need to be purchased until there’s at least some likelihood of it being used.
Ride out the storm
So what should investors make of the changing of the seasons? On one level, absolutely nothing – after all the seasons come and go and some will be better than average while others will be worse… it will all even out in the end.
On the other hand, these small but significant shifts in consumer behaviour can turn a sales increase into a decrease, and for companies with heavy debt loads or high fixed costs it can be a company-threatening difference.
With speculation that Billabong may be forced to resort to a capital raising in the face of a same-store sales decline of only 3%, these seasonal anomalies can add unforseen weight to a company under pressure.
Expecting sales and profits to follow a straight-line trend is dangerous for both management and investors. Instead, before committing money to an investment, you should be comfortable that the business can withstand a ‘stress test’ of unforseen lower volumes (seasonal or otherwise) for a period of time.
The corollary is that the market often dumps shares when a short-term blip hits a business. It has been said that the best time to buy straw hats is in winter – when demand is low therefore so are prices.
When sales growth for these types of companies hits an unusual bump in the road, the reason is likely to be either seasonal or structural – and if it’s the latter, that might just be the time to buy.
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Scott Phillips is The Motley Fool’s feature columnist. Scott owns shares in Coca-Cola Amatil and David Jones. The Motley Fool’s purpose is to educate, amuse and enrich investors. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.