NEW YORK -- To those who think debt is a dirty word, the modern-day R.H. Macy & Co. story wouldn't be fit for a feel-good Hollywood film.
A number of outsiders believe the 132-year-old retailer's future is more precarious now -- on the eve of an expected bleak Christmas shopping season -- than at any time since it went private in 1986.
Macy's, some skeptics say, might need something like divine intervention to shoulder its heavy debt burden while losing support from retail revenue.
Not so, say Macy's executives. They acknowledge Christmas 1990 won't go down in history as one of the merrier holidays. But a consumer spending slump won't put Macy's on the ropes because the retailer is ready for it, they say.
"We would feel very positive other than the fact that it is a very soft economy out there," Edward S. Finkelstein, chairman and chief executive, said in a recent interview at the retailer's headquarters atop the Manhattan flagship immortalized in the movie "Miracle on 34th Street."
"It's hard to be euphoric when the economy is this lousy, so I wouldn't describe my attitude as euphoric. But I have never felt better about our organization ..." Finkelstein said.
Inventories are $400 million below last year's bloated level and the year-to-year expense increase has been shaved to 1 percent, Finkelstein said, noting the retailer has planned for sales to be flat or even a bit lower than last year's. Expenses rose 7.5 percent in 1989 from 1988.
Outsiders aren't as confident. Macy's has been begging for business by hyping merchandise at reduced prices. This may suggest the company is desperate for sales to generate cash needed to cover payments on debts incurred in its $3.74 billion leveraged buyout and afterward, say analysts, who aren't privy to Macy's inside information.
Just as the back-to-school season was starting, Macy's advertisements for special price breaks on children's clothing blared over the airwaves and leaped from newspapers.
In September -- typically a transitional time in retailing when stores gear up for the climax of their selling years -- Macy's advertised a series of sales on bedding, women's clothing, accessories, fine jewelry, Oriental rugs, etc.
Merchandise also is marked down without fanfare. Macy's makes a habit of hosting unannounced sale events, possibly to encourage shoppers to stop by regularly to see what's on sale, according to Kurt Barnard, publisher of a New York-based retailing newsletter.
Consultants contend Macy's obsession with sales has caused the retailer to crowd its promotional calendar.
This compounds the problem of "sale syndrome," an irksome phenomenon for retailers caused by customers who have grown so accustomed to markdowns that they almost never expect to pay full price anymore.
Finkelstein disagreed and said the retailer has curbed its promotional activity -- especially compared with last year, when stores fell over each other marking down merchandise. The price war was started last year by Campeau Corp.'s Federated and Allied department store chains, which succumbed to bankruptcy court in January.
Macy's has 10 percent fewer promotions this year than last and conducts fewer one-day sales, Finkelstein said. He blasted predictions that this Christmas Macy's must slash prices and push merchandise as aggressively as it did a year ago.
"There is absolutely no reason we have to trash ourselves in spite of what know-nothing, uninformed observers say," he fumed.
Feisty Finkelstein clearly has no patience with speculation that he thinks lacks facts. He said reports criticizing Macy's for everything from sloppy shopkeeping to tardy bill-paying practices are unfair.
"I'm convinced that most of the people who trash our stores either haven't been in them, don't shop them or don't know what the hell is going on," he said.
He is annoyed that more mention isn't made of positive developments.
Business is going better in Texas and Florida than elsewhere in the country, for instance, while Macy's Bullock's Inc. chain has had strong business without the need for power-packed promoting, he said.
Macy's gets high marks for keeping interested parties up to date. A few months ago, senior Macy's executives huddled with vendors and other creditors to provide evidence of its bill-paying ability.
An executive with a women's apparel manufacturer, which supplies large volumes to Macy-owned department stores, confirmed the retailer pays promptly. The executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the trade lately has more faith in Macy's.
"All of us are feeling more comfortable than we were three or four months ago," he said. "Everyone has always felt that the people who run Macy's were among the most outstanding retail executives in the country. The question was, had they bitten off more than they could chew?"
Some of the concern in the trade and financial community subsided after Macy's made it clear it was trimming its annual interest bill of $595 million. At about 10 percent of sales, Macy's interest tab is one of the highest in the industry.
Macy's long-term debt amounts to $4.8 billion. At peak times during the year, Macy's total debt load is about $5.6 billion, said Myron E. Ullman, chief financial officer.
Macy's used some of the $15 million it obtained by selling a 1 percent equity stake in August to buy back a portion of the $1.6 billion of its outstanding junk bonds. Further bond buybacks are planned, taking the opportunity to cheaply retire debt that is selling at substantial discounts of around 50 cents on the dollar and lower.
Finkelstein said Macy's will consider selling up to 20 percent of the company and use the proceeds to cut interest expenses. The odds are good that a stake of some size will be sold in the next three to six months, he said.
But Macy's has no intention of parting with retail assets. It is exploring more possible sales of non-retail holdings, such as real estate, Finkelstein said.
Doubting Thomases don't believe Macy's merchandising clout, strong market position and consumer identification will automatically spare it from misery if Christmas is as bad as doomsayers predict.
Forecasts of operating profit, or income before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, have been scaled back for the six months ending Jan. 31. But estimates still are well above the dismal $416 million Macy's had in operating profit in the same period a year earlier, and profit margins are expected to improve.
Finkelstein doesn't delude himself about how tough his job will be in a prolonged economic slump.
"We may have to be running this business with tight economies, with tight expense control, for as much as two years," he said.