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Brick-and-Mortar Retail Suffers: The 2019 Story

Chris Hill, The Motley Fool

In this episode of Market Foolery, host Chris Hill chats with Motley Fool Germany's Matt Koppenheffer about a few of the market's biggest stories. First, because he follows the company and the Buffett behind it pretty closely, Matt shares his thoughts on this year's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A)(NYSE: BRK-B) meeting -- namely, the Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN) stake and the choice to stand by Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC). Is Buffett turning over a new leaf on tech, or is this just more of the same?

Also, the world of brick-and-mortar retail is looking pretty haggard, as dressbarn joins the ranks of retired brands, and store closures across the industry are growing steep. Tune in to find out more.

To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool's free podcasts, check out our podcast center. A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on May 21, 2019.

Chris Hill: It's Tuesday, May 21. Welcome to Market Foolery! I'm Chris Hill. Joining me in studio, he's been avoiding the studio. He hasn't been in here since last fall. It's Matt Koppenheffer!

Matt Koppenheffer: Hey, Chris!

Hill: As I stumble over your name, that's how long it's been. I've forgotten how to pronounce your last name. 

Koppenheffer: You have to relearn it. It is a last name you have to relearn. 

Hill: It is. It's good to see you!

Koppenheffer: It's good to see you, too!

Hill: Home Depot is reporting. We're not talking about that today. We're going to save that for Motley Fool Money this weekend. Check that out! We do have some retail news we're going to get to, but I want to start with this. I was thinking of you recently because, in advance of the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, people were tweeting at me, emailing me, posting in The Motley Fool podcast Facebook group like, "Hey, are you going to the Berkshire Hathaway meeting?" And of course, the answer is no. But when I got those questions, I immediately thought of you, because you're the person I think of as, "Oh, no, the person who goes to those is Matt." I know you didn't go this time. You've been before. But I'm curious what you're thinking these days when you look at Buffett, when you look at Berkshire Hathaway. 

I would say, in some order, the big news around the meeting this year was the purchase of Amazon shares, which Buffett was very quick to say, "Wasn't me!"

Koppenheffer: Right. It was one of the fellas.

Hill: One of the fellas, Todd or Ted. And then also the fallout for Wells Fargo. Take that in any order you want. We can go in any order. But I'm curious your thoughts on both of those, as someone who has watched this company very closely for a long time.

Koppenheffer: I think the Amazon purchase is interesting. It's not Buffett himself. It's one of the fellas. But it's another foray into what people would refer to as technology. We were actually talking about this a little bit before the show, I find the purchase of Amazon, again, whether it's Buffett or not, far less surprising than the purchase into airlines. That one is an industry that he had talked down for a long time --

Hill: He got burned!

Koppenheffer: Yeah, not just about, "I don't understand that industry." But like, "This is a bad industry." And then here he is, going into it. I won't get into that here. That's changing structural dynamics within the airline industry, that changes the investment outlook for it. So when you get into it, it's not that surprising. Amazon, it's another one of these businesses. You go back to IBM, when he got into IBM, right or wrong. Again, look back at the results of that, right or wrong. But when he went into it, it's like, "Oh, Warren Buffett getting into technology! He never would!" In a similar way, IBM is more services. It's not a fast, out-front type of company. Same thing with Amazon. I mean, it's a retailer. Of course, AWS is in the middle of it. I think big picture, though, on Buffett and technology, technology is applied science, right? So, at some point, railroads -- railroads are technology. But we're not saying, "Oh, Berkshire Hathaway bought BNSF! They're investing in technology!" I think what we need to think about is, Buffett doesn't invest in things that are new, high-flying, and unproven. It's not that he's avoiding technology. He's looking for proven things that can be profitable and grow and he can count on in the future. 

Hill: In some ways, among the other lessons that Warren Buffett provides, he also has, I think, a great lesson in, you don't have to be first to invest in a company. I'm hard-pressed to think of a big investment that he's made where it's like, "Wow, he was way out early in front of everyone else on that one!"

Koppenheffer: [laughs] No, it's way more common that he's decades or even more too late. I mean, you look at the banks that he invested in. Wells Fargo, he invested in 25 years ago, something like that. I mean, at that point, Wells Fargo was founded in the 1800s. He's maybe 100 years too late on that one. Most people say that on a lot of the investments he gets into. Which I guess is a good segue into Wells Fargo.

Hill: Well, before we get to Wells Fargo, the other thing I was thinking. You mentioned the airlines. It's hard to overstate how openly disdainful of airlines as a business Warren Buffett was for many years in his adult life. He made an investment, he got burned badly on it. It wasn't like he wasn't talking with no experience. He had a really bad experience. But it makes me think that his moving into airlines stocks, it's all the more a sign of, value is his North star. He got burned badly on airline stocks. But then, as you said, structural changes. The people running the airlines get smarter about how to make money off of airlines. And he puts emotion aside and says, "Look, from a value proposition, I like the looks of Delta. I like the looks of Southwest Airlines."

Koppenheffer: Yes, yes, I think it's that. I think it's also, to some extent -- and this will also overlap a little bit with Wells Fargo -- I imagine he's looking at that industry, and I think it's overreach to say that it's becoming anti-competitive, but it's becoming a lot less competitive. And that's part of those structural changes. These airlines used to compete themselves to death. The capital investment and everything else, they just couldn't keep up with it in terms of pricing and everything else. But the ways that the airline industry is changing, they're able to be more profitable. And it's harder to compete with the big established airlines. That makes it a more attractive investment. Does that make it more attractive from a lot of other angles? Probably not. I personally like Delta, I think Delta is a great carrier and has improved a lot over the years. But the airline industry in general, I think, is going to lack innovation and change because it's so much harder to compete as a smaller carrier these days. 

Hill: I feel like there was a little bit of revisionist history going on after the Berkshire Hathaway meeting with respect to Warren Buffett's comments about Wells Fargo. It seemed like there were some in the media who were saying, "Well, I think he was kind of tough on Wells Fargo!" And I just sort of looked at that, and I thought, "All things considered, I don't know that he was all that tough on Wells Fargo." We've talked before about the troubles at Wells Fargo, the fake credit card accounts that they created. They had Tim Sloan come in to be the CEO, which in hindsight looks like it was probably a mistake because they could have used some fresh blood, and now they're trying to right that ship. But to your point about the underlying strength of the business, as much as anything, do you think that's why Buffett is, to the extent that he's giving Wells Fargo a pass -- and it kind of seems like he is -- is it because the underlying business of Wells Fargo is so... what's the correct word?

Koppenheffer: Attractive?

Hill: [laughs] I was going for another A-word, but sure. Anti-competitive, attractive?

Koppenheffer: Attractive!

Hill: Depending on your point of view, those can be the same thing!

Koppenheffer: Look, you've got to take this with a massive, massive grain of salt, because I am a shareholder in Wells Fargo. I'm a big shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway. But you look at Wells Fargo, and despite this massive scandal, it is still one of the big four banks in America. The dividend adjusted returns over the past 10 years have been 131%. You're trailing the S&P. You're trailing the S&P with Wells Fargo. But 131% over the last 10 years, despite this massive scandal, and just, one bungle after the next. 

But the underlying network and size and scale and the inability for smaller banks to come up and really take down these big banks, and the big banks to have any -- there's no room for them to go down. I think that's what Buffett is looking at, basically. So then you go beyond that. And then you have to question, well, is that good? Is that fair? Outside of the investment perspective, I think that's a different question. You can also go in and question, what of Buffett's past comments about credibility and all of his stuff about, you don't want to do anything that will end up on the front page of the newspaper? What does that say about all that? I don't know! I don't think it reflects well on that. But I think it's a reflection that Buffett is a human at the end of the day. And just like the rest of us, he's trying to balance the thing that he's doing to make a living in his profession vs. what he believes in. I imagine this is a place, I hope this is a place, where he's feeling some cognitive dissonance, because what he has claimed to believe, and what's going on at Wells Fargo, don't line up. 

Hill: I want to get to what you've been working on in just a second, because I know you've been busy. We've had a bunch of IPOs in the last six months. From my standpoint, they've certainly been entertaining, regardless of whether it's a Beyond Meat shooting to the moon --

Koppenheffer: As a vegetarian, I'm very excited about that, by the way. 

Hill: Oh, OK. I figured you would be. I'm assuming you're getting your money lined up for when Impossible Foods goes public as well. We also had Uber. I'm curious, when you look at all these IPOs, does anything in particular go through your mind as an investor? 

Koppenheffer: With Beyond Meat, that is an example of a business that I'm really excited about, because they are making the thing. Not only the U.S. economy, but the global economy, a lot of the biggest companies, the most highly valued companies, are centered around putting products in front of us and selling products that somebody else is making. If you look back over the scope of time, this is something that goes in waves, has its ups and downs. The power within the economy vs. those who make and those who sell, the platform vs. the individual company and the provider, this tends to shift back and forth. But right now, it's definitely shifted very much in terms of who's selling, who's got the advertising space, who's controlling the marketplace, if you want to think about it from a historical, bizarre perspective, who's controlling the marketplace, that's very, very important right now. And it's just a little funny to me, that at some point, you have to have the products, the things. That's why, for better or for worse, I give a lot of respect to Elon Musk. What he's doing, he's innovating around a thing. He's built a thing. He's innovating something that people are actually buying, as opposed to a way that people buy other things. 

Hill: Well, they're not buying as many as probably he and his shareholders would hope.

Koppenheffer: No, no. [laughs] There are other issues there. But it is an actual, physical good and innovation in that sense. 

Hill: I was asking you earlier, what are you working on before? And you said, "I'm working on My Wallet Hero." And I'm ashamed to say that my in-the-moment reaction was, what is that? 

Koppenheffer: Well, as you obviously know, and as the dozens of listeners to this show know, The Fool has done such an amazing, incredible job empowering people to be able to invest better over many years. We've done so well at helping people improve their financial lives from that perspective, one of the things as a company we've been looking at doing is, how can we help people in their broader financial lives? In the U.S., we have a website called The Ascent, theascent.com. I encourage people to visit there. This is about, if you need a new credit card, what credit card? How do you choose? With all the credit cards out there. What bank account? If you need a loan, if you need a mortgage? All of these questions. We're hoping to help Fools make these kind of decisions as well. 

My Wallet Hero is taking that to our global listeners. Right now, we're in the UK at mywallethero.com or mywallethero.co.uk. We're aiming to do the same thing. Need a credit card? Need a brokerage account? We provide the information that helps people make better decisions on that. 

Hill: Nice. Are you getting a good response? 

Koppenheffer: We are. It's something that can be very overwhelming. You know you need a credit card. At least that's my perspective. It makes commerce, it makes your everyday life so much easier. But how do you choose? How important is the APR on your credit card? Should you choose a rewards credit card? Do you want a cashback credit card? These are a lot of questions that the average person doesn't want to dig in and read as much as we're reading on it. So I feel like this is a very helpful service, to be able to go in there and say, "Help me figure this out."

Hill: Yeah, it's one of those things where, I think we all want choice on some level. 

Koppenheffer: "On some level." [laughs] 

Hill: On some level. But at some point... for me, it's walking into, it can be a grocery store or Target or Walmart. And it's just like, at some point, you get too many choices.

Koppenheffer: Toothpaste.

Hill: Yeah. Or, like, I'm just looking for some ketchup. Can you not offer me 40 brands? Can you just offer me a couple? 

So, the retail news I mentioned, Ascena Retail Group (NASDAQ: ASNA), a company we've talked about from time to time, that's the parent company name. Probably better known by all of the women's apparel brands that Ascena owns. Ann Taylor, Justice, Lane Bryant. Ascena Retail announced that they're going to be shutting down their dressbarn business line. This is 650 stores. They're looking to focus on the more profitable brands, which makes a lot of sense. We'll get to bricks-and-mortar retail in a second. I have to be honest, when I saw this story, the first thing that went through my mind was, "OK, good." Like, not good that stores are closing. Not good that their employees there will be out of a job. But just, as brand names go, dressbarn is just not a good name. Like, really? You're trying to get women to come in and shop? Come into the barn and buy some clothes? No!

Koppenheffer: It's awful!

Hill: It's just not a good name!

Koppenheffer: I was actually trying to think through -- we lived in Germany for a few years and traveled around a bunch, so you end up seeing uses of the English language for brands in other countries that aren't always so ideal. We've seen quite a few of those. I was trying to think back, are there any that really compete with dressbarn as just such a bad brand name for trying to bring people in? And the best one I could come up with, and this isn't a brand name per se, but we were at a Christmas market in Vienna. In Vienna, things are referred to as "wiener." And there's a punch that you drink at the Christmas markets. And so, one of these, you go buy, and it's labeled -- and this is if you're reading it in English, it wouldn't be pronounced like this in German -- it reads Wiener Punch. And so, I'm thinking, it's sort of on the level of that. Probably a brand that won't be missed.

Hill: Probably. By the way, for anyone who's wondering about the state of bricks and mortar retail, with this announcement, 650 locations, throw in the announcements that we've gotten earlier this year from Gap, Victoria's Secret, Payless Shoes, more than 6,000 stores have been announced to be closed in 2019. That is more than all of the store closures we saw in 2018. For anyone wondering about the state of bricks-and-mortar retail, that is as good a stat as you're going to find on which way things are headed. 

Koppenheffer: Can I put you on the spot to ask you the last bricks-and-mortar retail purchases that you made? 

Hill: Gosh! Does a farmer's market count? 

Koppenheffer: No.

Hill: It's not bricks and mortar. 

Koppenheffer: Yeah, no farmer's market. And I'll take out grocery stores, too. 

Hill: Boy... probably a month.

Koppenheffer: A month. Where was that? 

Hill: I'm including CVS in with the grocery stores. It was at Target.

Koppenheffer: OK. See, we do some grocery shopping at Target, so I would have discounted that. But that's probably my last one, too. Target. 

Hill: Quick shout out. The immortal Dan Boyd, our producer, is of course behind the glass, as he is. But also a quick shout out to someone else behind the glass, and that's Grace Fluharty, a member of the graduating class of T.C. Williams High. Go, Titans! We are the Titans, the mighty mighty Titans. Grace is spending a couple of weeks at Fool HQ doing a senior experience thing, which is one of the great things they do at T.C. Williams High.

Koppenheffer: That's amazing!

Hill: Good to have Grace hanging out with us. Matt Koppenheffer, let's try and get you back in the studio in less than six months if possible. Can we do that? 

Koppenheffer: We will do our best!

Hill: OK. Thank you for being here! As always, people on the program may have interest in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. That's going to do it for this edition of Market Foolery! The show is mixed by Dan Boyd. I'm Chris Hill. Thanks for listening! We'll see you tomorrow!

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Randi Zuckerberg, a former director of market development and spokeswoman for Facebook and sister to its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Chris Hill owns shares of Amazon. Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway (B shares), Target, and Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway (B shares), Delta Air Lines, Facebook, and Southwest Airlines. The Motley Fool is short shares of IBM. The Motley Fool recommends CVS Health and Home Depot. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.