The middle of most U.S. grocery stores holds all you might need for an apocalypse-ready shelter: canned soups, breakfast cereals, premade pasta mixes and endless bags and boxes of snacks. But with American shoppers increasingly losing their taste for heavy doses of salt, sugar and preservatives, major U.S. food brands are racing to reposition their processed products as healthier, more natural eats. For General Mills Inc., which reports quarterly earnings Thursday, the push hasn’t yet paid off.
The Minneapolis consumer food maker is expected to report weaker revenues in the second quarter of fiscal year 2016. Sales of breakfast items like Cheerios, Wheaties and Lucky Charms have dropped in recent periods, while the Betty Crocker brand, which includes cake mixes and Hamburger Helper packets, has suffered as U.S. households opt to make more meals from scratch.
“Packaged food companies in general have been challenged by the fact that consumers are shopping the perimeter of the store, as opposed to center-of-the-store categories,” said Erin Lash, a senior equity analyst at Morningstar in Chicago. Investors on Thursday’s earning calls will be listening to “get a sense of, number one, the ways in which the company is combating those challenges,” Lash said.
Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters said they expected General Mills (NYSE:GIS) to report $4.61 billion in revenue for September, October and November, a nearly 2.2 percent drop from revenues of $4.71 billion in the same period last year. Net income for the maker of Progresso canned soups and Häagen-Dazs ice cream is expected to rise to $506.9 million, or 83 cents per share, from $346.1 million, or 56 cents per share, according to the Thomson Reuters poll. Last year’s profits were hit by restructuring charges that drove down General Mills’ fully reported income.
The projected dip in revenues may partly reflect the company’s sale of its Green Giant brand. General Mills on Nov. 2 completed the sale of its frozen vegetable line to B&G Foods in New Jersey for $765 million in cash, as part of its effort to focus on faster-growing businesses. Green Giant’s $585 million in annual sales represented only about 4 percent of General Mills’ overall business, the company said.
General Mills will report financial results during a Dec. 17 webcast at around 8:30 a.m. EST. The company’s shares ticked up 0.20 percent by late Wednesday morning to $58.66 a share.
Stock analysts remained upbeat this week about General Mills’ near-term prospects, however. The company in recent quarters has made moves to slash costs and plow those savings into new and repackaged products. Zacks Investment Research upgraded General Mills from a “sell” rating to a “hold” rating in a Dec. 11 note to investors, citing the company’s “consumer-focused innovation and marketing and accelerating distribution of its natural and organic brands to improve sales,” MarketRealist.com reported Monday.
General Mills in September 2014 acquired organic food company Annie’s Homegrown for $820 million in cash. Annie’s makes a popular line of mac and cheese products along with pizzas, salad dressing, crackers and other snacks that appeal to consumers’ dual desires to eat less-processed foods without sacrificing low cost and convenience. Lash said investors on Thursday’s call are looking for “some additional insight into how that integration and the benefits derived from that acquisition are progressing.”
Investors will also be listening for the latest on General Mills’ yogurt push. Sales of the company’s Yoplait brand are growing again after a few painful years, during which newcomers like Chobani swept across America’s dairy aisle with thick Greek yogurt and organic blends. Containers of Yoplait Original drove 4 percent retail sales growth in the first quarter of fiscal year 2016 after the company cut sugar by 25 percent and positioned the yogurt as a breakfast alternative, General Mills reported Sept. 22.
That resurgence may not last for General Mills, however. Chobani’s sales are gaining ground again as the company pushes new varieties, including spicy and savory blends suited for all-day snacking. “Now it looks as though Chobani is re-establishing itself and putting pressure on Yoplait again,” said Alexia Howard, a stock analyst with Bernstein Research. “One of the biggest questions on the top line is yogurt.”
Yet the largest question looming over Thursday’s call will be how well-positioned General Mills is for a takeover by the newly merged Kraft Heinz Co. The combined company, formed in early July, is the fifth-largest food company in the world by sales, with a market value of $96 billion. Analysts said the industry behemoth is likely on the lookout to gobble up other brands.
“There’s a big question about when and whether Kraft Heinz will make another move,” Howard said. “General Mills is probably on the list of potential companies. The company has a strong brand, good solid market share positions in the U.S., and strong divisions in both Brazil and China.”
Howard added that “even though the fundamentals in the U.S. look a bit challenged right now, investors may start to get excited about General Mills as a possible takeout candidate as we run the course through 2016.”