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Sterne Agee: DG COO Todd Vasos strong candidate for CEO

BY Michael Johnsen

NEW YORK — Current Dollar General COO and Longs Drug Store veteran Todd Vasos is a likely candidate to succeed DG CEO Richard Dreiling, suggested Sterne Agee analyst Chuck Grom on Friday in a research note following a day of meetings with the leading dollar store retailer. 
 
While Dollar General hasn't tipped its hand as to who the successor may be — the announcement is expected in April, Grom noted — Vasos is a very familiar, and capable, candidate he said. "We believe Vasos’ experience leading the day-to-day blocking and tackling across the Dollar General organization make him an enviable candidate," Grom wrote. 
 
Grom disclosed that the three-person selection committee is comprised of Bill Rhodes, CEO of AutoZone and another Longs Drug veteran; Warren Bryant, former CEO of Longs Drug; and Mike Calbert, a former KKR partner. Grom expects the CEO transition to be smooth, which sets Dollar General up for success with both significant organic expansion opportunities and a more positive consumer outlook on the horizon. 
 
"The key sound bite from the meeting – 'There is no doubt the consumer is feeling better today' – sums up an extremely upbeat trip down to Goodlettsville," Grom said. "A good proxy for the strengthening consumer has been the improvement on the non-consumable side as of late, particularly the women’s apparel business. As a result, the company is beginning to layer in more SKUs on the discretionary side (i.e., housewares, home, domestics, apparel) to capture this sales (and margin) opportunity."
 
Grom noted that there is plenty of room for expansion in the U.S. marketplace, with more than 13,000 opportunities across the nation. "With peers Family Dollar and Dollar Tree likely to undergo a multi-year consolidation period (i.e., re-bannering, closing, fixing), it’s our view that DG sees this an opportunity to ramp growth – capturing better sites and market share along the way," Grom suggested. Dollar General has plans in place to grow square footage by roughly 6% in fiscal 2015 with some 730 new stores. Appoximately 900 additional new store openings are being targeted for fiscal 2016.
 
In addition to seizing an opporunity to grab the best dollar channel corners as Dollar General's chief competitor Dollar Tree/Family Dollar focuses on consolidation, Grom noted that the re-bannering of the merging dollar channel entities "should create another sales opportunity for DG, as more stores transform from Family Dollar into Dollar Tree locations, where the SKU overlap with Dollar General is significantly lower."
 

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Walgreens still targeting retail’s best corners with mobile strategy

BY Michael Johnsen

 
 
DEERFIELD, Ill. — Years ago, Walgreens had a penchant for staking their store-development flag on the best retail corners across America on their way toward more than 8,200 locations. And they're still at it. Only this time, America's best retail corners are just a click away. 
 
In its heyday, the distance between Walgreens and its customers was measured in miles and minutes, noted Joe Rago, Walgreens director mobile innovation program, in a recent presentation at the Walgreens-sponsored Evans Data Developer Relations Conference. Today, that distance is measured in inches and instants as more and more shoppers transact with Walgreens over their smartphones. These are very valuable shoppers he noted, spending six times as much per year with Walgreens as compared to those customers who only walk through one of Walgreens' 8,200 doors.  
 
And the volume of Walgreens shoppers connecting to the Chicagoland retailer grows by leaps and bounds each year — in 2009 less than 1% of Walgreens online interactions were traced to mobile. Today, more than 60% of Walgreens' online traffic is done on a smartphone. 
 
Walgreens is the leading brick-and-click retailer when it comes to apps, according to the Internet Retailer App Index, Rago noted in his presentation.  
 
"We recently took a quick jump to the Palo Alto/Bay Area and sponsored the Evans Data Developer Relations Conference," Drew Schweinfurth, Walgreens developer evangelist, wrote in a blog on Thursday describing the presentation. "There, we witnessed a plethora of developer evangelists and developer relations program managers across a variety of companies and industries. … Other than blowing minds and changing perspectives of Walgreens, [Rago] also received some great feedback on things to look forward to in our program."
 
In addition to posting Rago's presentation deck (embedded above), Schweinfurth also posted his presentation on "Trying New Things and Onboarding Developers" on his blog
 

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Fred’s Super Dollar bullish on 2015 results with new team in place

BY Michael Johnsen

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Despite the fact that Fred's Super Dollar is gravitating toward a retail business model where retail pharmacy plays a more centric role, Fred's is not abandoning its value store heritage, Mike Bloom, Fred's president and COO, told analysts Thursday morning. Quite to the contrary. Bloom, a veteran of both the dollar store channel and retail pharmacy with stints at Family Dollar and CVS Health, respectively, is forming a team dedicated to capitalizing on the promise of retail pharmacy with a focus on delivering on that dollar store value proposition across the front-end.  
 
"We perform a role in these rural markets that is very important for the consumer. We are a general store, and we are still a value store," Bloom said. "One of my learnings from being here just a short three months is it's pretty shocking to me as I look across the general merchandise categories, the volume that we generate in some of these businesses. And to me that says we play a very important role in these markets," he said. "So I do not see us turning into a big-box drug store; I see us being a very strong hybrid model, with a great pharmacy business [and] a strong health and beauty aid business, which I think we can improve upon. … But it's very important that we balance that with that general merchandise, with those categories that our customer expects Fred's to have and has relied on us for those for many years."
 
"As we considered Bryan Pugh for the position in merchandising, he was heavily involved in Walgreens' program to evolve their product mix and he brings a great strength in really understanding what our customer is looking for in our store beyond a pharmacy," added Jerry Shore, Fred's CEO. "Our team that we're putting into place, with Craig [Barnes] on the sourcing and the import products side, it's an excellent team to get us to that model that Mike is talking about."
 
Fred's is expecting to drive both improvements in sourcing and operational execution as well as improvements in customer care and communication to drive stong comparable sales and positive business results going forward. 
 
For the year ended Jan. 31, Fred's posted a loss of $28.9 million, or 79 cents per diluted share compared with a net income of $26 million in the year-ago period. Adjusted net loss for 2014 was $7.3 million or 20 cents per diluted share.
 
Fred's total sales for fiscal 2014 were $2 billion, an increase of 2%. On a comparable store basis, fiscal 2014 decreased 0.6% versus an increase of 0.6% for the year-earlier period.
 
"Although our pharmacy department posted another strong script performance in 2014, the year overall was challenging as we dealt with problems in the general merchandise side of our business and the expiring pharmacy supply contract," Shore stated. "During the last half of the year, we worked aggressively to clear inventory, close underperforming stores and improve supply chain strategies, among other things. Clearly, those steps were painful from a near-term perspective, but necessary in terms of our goal to restore Fred's to profitability, expand gross margins and capitalize on the positive business in the pharmacy department."
 
Shore noted that  Fred's announcement Wednesday of its acquisition of specialty pharmacy operator EntrustRx, when completed, will bring additional resources to Fred's specialty pharmacy operations, EIRIS Health Services.
 
"We enter 2015 with a strong sense of optimism because of the momentum that has been building during the past several months with regard to our emphasis on process improvement, expanding our pharmacy business, building talent across the organization and refining our store model," Shore said. "We now have leadership in place with the credentials and experience to execute our strategic plan and drive strong financial improvements, as our earnings guidance reflects, and build the base for even stronger returns in the future for our shareholders."
 
Total sales for the first quarter of 2015 are expected to increase in the range of flat to up 2%, Fred's projected. Comparable store sales for the first quarter also are expected to be flat to 2% compared with a decrease of 1.9% in the first quarter last year.
 
The company expects total sales for the year to increase 10% to 15% which includes the impact of the acquisition of Reeves-Sain Drug Store and the EntrustRx specialty pharmacy business. Comparable store sales for the year are expected to increase 4% to 6% compared with a decrease of 0.6% in the prior year.
 

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