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story.lead_photo.caption Customers shop in a Target store last fall in Dallas. Target increased its minimum hourly wage last fall to $11, and the CEO reiterated Tuesday that the wage will rise to $15 by the end of 2020.

Target Corp.'s bid to revamp the company and better compete with Inc. and a resurgent Walmart Inc. is taking a toll on profit.

The retailer posted fourth-quarter earnings that fell short of analysts' estimates as the retailer increased spending, sending the shares down the most in almost four months. The key expenses include delivery of online orders -- part of its push to catch up in e-commerce -- and higher wages for employees.

The results threaten to renew the debate over whether a $7 billion turnaround plan by Chief Executive Officer Brian Cornell is coming at too high a price. While new brands and remodeling of stores have helped revive the retailer's cachet, the investments are squeezing profits. And the company has been further constrained in recent months by a wage increase in October, with plans for another one this spring.

"I think people have major concerns that the investments aren't going away anytime soon and will continue to weigh on profitability," said Brian Yarbrough, an analyst at Edward Jones.

This point was reinforced during a call with investors Tuesday, when Target executives forecast that operating margin may narrow as much as an additional 0.8 percentage point in the first quarter. They also announced a plan to raise the company's minimum hourly wage to $12 this spring -- a sign wage inflation is heating up for the nation's largest retailers.

Last fall, Target increased its hourly wage from $10 to $11. Cornell told analysts Tuesday the company saw a better applicant pool and a 60 percent spike in the number of applicants in the days after the announcement. Cornell reiterated Tuesday its promise to increase the minimum pay to $15 by the end of 2020.

The announcements sent shares down 4.46 percent to $71.79 on Tuesday -- the lowest since Nov. 15. Target had been up 15 percent this year through Monday's close.

Simeon Gutman, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, said it "remains to be seen" whether Target can boost sales while simultaneously improving profitability. "We are skeptical both can be accomplished," he said in a research note.

A long and cutthroat holiday season also may have hurt profit because of the heavy discounting, said Moody's Corp. analyst Charlie O'Shea.

Though Target's various investments had the biggest effect on profitability, "the promotional environment, particularly during an elongated holiday season, had a bearing on margins as well," he said in a note.

While Target said it was able to offset the impact of holiday deals with cost cuts, its fourth-quarter gross margins still fell to their lowest level in 20 years. Increased transportation costs for all retailers could crimp margins as well, according to UBS analyst Michael Lasser.

The good news is Target's sales are improving, helped by stronger traffic in stores and online. On a comparable basis, they grew 3.6 percent last quarter -- better than the 3.4 percent estimate. Profit came in at $1.37 a share during the period, excluding some items, 1 cent shy of Wall Street projections.

Target expects adjusted earnings of $5.15 to $5.45 a share this year, reiterating a forecast it delivered in January. The Minneapolis-based company planned to give more information at its annual investor presentation later on Tuesday.

Amazon poses a particular threat to Target. The overlap between Target's core shoppers and membership in Amazon's Prime loyalty program is higher than for many other retailers, according to Magid, a consulting firm.

But Target's longtime foe Walmart isn't standing still either. It recently made a bigger push into apparel and home decor, two of Target's most important categories.

As part of its overhaul, Target is remodeling hundreds of stores and introducing new private brands in key categories such as apparel and home decor -- the latest is Opalhouse, a collection of 1,300 items including bedding and bath items. It also has acquired logistics specialists Shipt and Grand Junction to speed the rollout of same-day deliveries, which will expand from New York to Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington this year.

The retailer is also expanding its curbside pickup service to about 1,000 stores by the end of 2018. Walmart is also betting on curbside pickup, and will offer it at about 2,000 stores over the same period.

Information for this article was contributed by The Associated Press.

Business on 03/07/2018

Print Headline: 4Q report sinks stock of Target

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