UPDATE 2-Sears loss widens as discounts fail to arrest fall in sales
(Adds analyst comments, background; updates shares)
By Maria Ajit Thomas
May 22 (Reuters) - Sears Holdings Corp posted a bigger loss for the first quarter as the struggling retailer failed to arrest a fall in sales despite offering heavy discounts to woo shoppers.
Shares of the company, which operates Sears department stores and the Kmart discount chain, fell 4 percent in premarket trading.
Sears, controlled by hedge fund billionaire Eddie Lampert, has been shedding assets and closing stores as it battles the operating losses and weak sales that have plagued the company since 2005, when the two chains were merged.
Unappealing merchandise and poor store layouts have pushed shoppers away from Sears and Kmart to Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Target Corp, analysts say.
"The customer experience at Sears and Kmart is basically horrific," Brian Sozzi, chief executive of Belus Capital Advisors, said on Thursday.
Sears was once the largest retailer by revenue in the United States, but it lost the crown to Wal-Mart in 1990.
Sears has been trying to move away from relying on stores for revenue to focus on membership through its Shop Your Way program, which integrates online shopping.
The company said that sales to Shop Your Way members increased to 74 percent of eligible sales in the first quarter from 68 percent a year earlier.
Sozzi, however, said the program was doing more harm than good by offering discounts on already promoted, low-margin items.
"(Sears is) not driving high quality sales and they're limiting the ability to charge a full price. In a way, they're begging for customers by giving away their products," he said.
The company said last week it was exploring a sale of its 51 percent stake in Sears Canada Inc.
Sears said on Thursday that a potential stake sale could raise about $730 million in cash at current market value.
On Wednesday, Sears Canada reported its steepest fall in quarterly sales in almost five years.
Sears said it would close 80 stores or more in the year ending January. The retailer operated about 1,900 Sears and Kmart stores in the United States at the end of the first quarter.
U.S. comparable store sales fell 1 percent in the quarter ended May 3.
Comparable store sales declined 2.2 percent at Kmart stores in the United States, but rose 0.2 percent at Sears stores due to higher demand for home appliances and home products.
Sears said its gross margin fell to 23.2 percent from 25.5 percent.
Net loss attributable to shareholders widened to $402 million, or $3.79 per share, from $279 million, or $2.63 per share, a year earlier.
Revenue declined 6.8 percent to $7.88 billion, but came higher than the average analyst estimate of $7.71 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Sears shares were trading at $35.04 before the bell. The stock has fallen about 8 percent this year to Wednesday's close. (Editing by Kirti Pandey)