“Brick and mortar retailers are dying.”
Tell me if you’ve heard that one over the past five years. As e-commerce grows stronger each year, investors are shunning traditional retailers in droves. Right?
But don’t tell that to Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) or Lowe’s (NYSE:LOW), the two stocks facing off in today’s battle. Combined, they collected over $25 billion in free cash flow in 2016 and had sales topping a half-trillion dollars.
Between the two, which is the better buy today? That’s impossible to answer without a fully functioning crystal ball, but we’ll do our best to dig deeper by approaching the question from three different angles.
Sustainable competitive advantages
There is absolutely nothing more important to investigate than a company’s sustainable competitive advantage — often referred to as a “moat.” If I could go back in time and talk to my beginning-investor-self, I would make this simple point abundantly clear.
That’s because a moat represents the special something that separates a company from its competition. Over a long enough time frame, it is what separates the winners from the losers, what keeps customers coming back again and again, and what keeps the competition at bay for years.
Wal-Mart’s key advantage has always been its scale. No one did a better job at focusing on small, rural communities, buying things in bulk, and lowering overhead costs better than the Walton family. That led to market-thumping returns for decades.
But that moat has been mightily disrupted by Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN). With e-commerce taking more and more of the retail pie every year, the very thing that made Wal-Mart great — its physical presence throughout the United States and the world — has become its Achilles’ heel. Customers value convenience above all else, and if packages can be delivered right to their front door, then that’s what they’ll go with.
Lowe’s has been able to avoid the Amazon bug by nature of its business. It simply isn’t practical to deliver most home-furnishing and construction purchases right to your door. In addition, these purchases are usually so large and long-lasting that customers like to see, touch, and try out the things they’re buying before handing over their credit card.
Perhaps the best proxy for these trends is each store’s comps — or how much comparable-store sales increased in any given year.
I simply think that Lowe’s wins this battle because its business is more difficult to disrupt with e-commerce than Wal-Mart’s. The company’s solid position as the No. 2 home-furnishing store in America, the power of its brand, and its scale all offer a wider moat — in my opinion — than Wal-Mart has.
Most investors, especially those who put their faith behind big-box brand…