UPDATE 2-Lululemon confirms sales growth to slow; shares slide

Mon Jan 14, 2013 6:39pm EST

* Q4 EPS 74 cents, previous forecast 71 cents to 73 cents

* Lululemon CEO says calendar "compressed" holiday season

* Company's failure to raise sales outlook disappoints market (Adds analyst expectations, quotes, background.)

Jan 14 (Reuters) - Lululemon Athletica Inc said on Monday it expected growth slowed sharply at its established yoga-wear shops for the quarter that includes the crucial holiday shopping season, driving its shares down 6 percent.

The Canadian-based purveyor of pricey women's workout gear said it sees same-store sales growth "in the high-single digits" for the fiscal fourth quarter ending Feb. 3, down sharply from growth of 26 percent in the comparable quarter last year. Lululemon announced its outlook after the close of the stock market.

While the outlook is identical to the company's forecast when it reported third-quarter earnings on Dec. 6, the update came as a surprise to the market. Lululemon tends to be conservative in its outlook, and many expected the retailer to outperform its initial forecast.

Lululemon's stock, which trades at a steep price-earnings multiple, reflects "crazy expectations," said Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst at NBG Productions.

"It's at the point now where even if they were to come out and announce a blowout holiday quarter, the stock probably would have sold off - but they actually gave you more reason here," he said.

Lululemon's typically volatile Nasdaq-listed stock dropped 6.1 percent to $67.85 after the bell.

Credit Suisse analyst Christian Buss said that with the highest store productivity of any U.S. apparel retailer, Lululemon may be struggling to grow sales in mature markets.

That doesn't mean there is no room for growth, however, said Buss, who had downgraded his rating on the stock to "neutral" from "outperform" in early January, citing slowing growth at established stores in Canada.

"This is still a company executing very, very well, that has a significant runway to expand the store footprint," he said.

DISCOUNTS UP?

Lululemon's chief executive, Christine Day ,said in the release that gross margins were slightly ahead of forecast and inventory trends were favorable. The company did not disclose specific figures for either metric.

"Our store managers, key leaders and educators stepped up and did a fantastic job this year as the calendar compressed holiday shopping patterns into a couple of key weeks," she said.

NBG's Sozzi said the update might prompt investor worries about Lululemon's same-store sales growth in future quarters.

"It almost seems like she's making an excuse for the quarter," he said. "Trying to reset expectations on the company going forward or in the first part of 2013 - at least, that's how I took it."

Buss said his data showed that Lululemon's discounts were higher than average in early January, while Sozzi said he has noticed an uptick in sales online and in stores.

The company sells the vast majority of its goods at full price, but after Christmas some new lines were marked down substantially, even in conventional colors like black and blue. "I think they overestimated what the consumer was willing to pay," said Sozzi.

Lululemon said expects to post earnings of 74 cents a share for its fourth quarter, in line with analyst expectations, and well above the 51 cents a share reported for the quarter last year. It previously forecast earnings between 71 and 73 cents a share.

The company sees revenue "at the high end" of its previous forecast range of $475 million to $480 million, shy of the $489 million expected by analysts, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. Revenue in the fourth quarter a year earlier was $371.5 million. (Reporting by Allison Martell; Editing by Janet Guttsman, Andre Grenon and Leslie Adler)

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