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Reebok's Stutter Step

By Seth Jayson
April 23, 2004

The stutter step, a momentary break in stride, is a great way to throw off the competition. Just ask any decent halfback or wide receiver. But sometimes, the stutter is unintentional, and whether it's helpful or disastrous depends on what comes next.

No. 2 athletic shoe maker Reebok International (NYSE: RBK) didn't look so nimble on its toes yesterday, when the first-quarter results hit the wire. Net sales barely eked skyward, and that 4% uptick turns into a 1% backslide when you factor in the effect of foreign exchange.

Earnings were flat compared to last year, at $0.63 per share. This was a pretty big disappointment compared to the fabbo numbers the firm put up in January, and they don't stack up to the recent showing from Nike (NYSE: NIK). If I didn't know better, I'd wonder if Reebok's other, much more enthusiastic press releases were meant to distract us from these snoozers.

U.S. apparel sales had the strongest growth for the firm, at 9.4%, but it wasn't enough to make up for the constant-dollar sales declines all across the international business -- an area where Nike showed some relative strength.

Still, I'm partial to this underdog, and investors should be encouraged by the 2.1% increase in gross margins, plus double-digit growth in the premier running and retro lines. Management promised to commit more resources to advertising in the coming months, so the firm needs to capitalize on its stable of popular-culture icons like Shakira, Eve, 50 Cent, and Jay Z. In a time of record consumer spending, investors have a right to expect solid sales growth, and all eyes are on Reebok to see what happens when the next shoe drops.

Is Reebok going to drop the competition or take a big digger? Discuss it on the Fool's Reebok International board.

Fool contributor Seth Jayson runs in Mizunos, but he's got love for Reebok, too. He has no stake in any company mentioned above. View his Fool profile here.

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