On the eve of the release of Whole Foods’ third-quarter earnings report, the company sits at a crucial point in its history as the Austin, Texas-based chain takes steps to respond to a swirl of changes in the grocery industry.
The company reported highly disappointing Q2 earnings in May, and some analysts expect that it may do so again on Wednesday. But the long-term outlook for Whole Foods Market Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) is solid, most analysts say, as the trailblazing grocer is adapting its business model, expanding its reach and taking other steps to beat out the competition.
Whole Foods’ earnings per shares were estimated to be $0.39 as of Tuesday evening, according to Zacks Investment Research, up just slightly from the $0.38 per share reported for Q2, and three cents below the $0.42 expected 90 days ago. Fourth-quarter earnings are expected to drop to $0.34 per share.
Still, the expected earnings per share on the year stand at $1.53 as of Tuesday, according to Zacks and annual revenue is estimated at $14.28 billion.
There is a good deal of uncertainty surrounding Whole Foods’ looming earning report release, but Brian Yarbrough, consumer staples analyst at Edward Jones Investments, believes Whole Foods is on track to right the ship and return to strong growth, though he expects the next two quarters’ earnings to be underwhelming.
“Hopefully the trend changes. We still have a buy rating on it,” Yarbrough said Tuesday. “It’s got a great long-term growth trajectory; you’re going to go from less than 400 stores to 1,200 long-term; the natural organic market has been growing 15 to 18 percent now for the last eight years, and while we don’t think it will continue to grow in the mid-teens we do think it will grow in at least low teens or high single digits over the next five years.”
In order for Whole Foods to experience a return to its former glory, the company is going to have to make some major changes to its business model, and hope that ones it has already been pursuing pay off in the end.
The organic and specialty grocery space was once a largely open market for companies like Whole Foods to dominate, but it has grown much more crowded in recent years as traditional grocery stores like Safeway Inc. (NYSE:SWY) and Kroger Co. (NYSE:KR) and even mega-retailers like Walmart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT) and Target Corp. (NYSE:TGT) have added products aimed at the booming market.
As such, Whole Foods needs to find a way to recapture market share either by lowering prices, expanding or changing offerings or innovating, according to Kevin Abbas, a financial analyst at Sageworks, a Raleigh, North Carolina, financial information company.
“The thing to look for as Whole Foods has seen declining growth is whether or not they’re going to be able to continually differentiate themselves vs. the other stores coming into that space,” Abbas said Tuesday. “They’re almost getting too big for their mission -- they're trying to hit a niche market, but they’re kind of becoming huge, so seeing how they’ll be able to continue to differentiate themselves from the other specialty players as well as the bigger players like Kroger and Safeway that generally have lower prices -- that will be interesting.”
Whole Foods appears to be well aware of the fact that many consumers call its stores “Whole Paycheck” and have stopped shopping there because of high prices, and it is working to do something about it, according to comments co-chief executive John Mackey made to the U.K.’s Independent newspaper when its Q2 earnings were announced.
“We were overly optimistic in our ability to compare against the record-breaking results we have produced for the last few years,” Mackey said. “So we’re going to be investing more aggressively in price going forward, while continuing to take our expenses down and continuing to innovate and differentiate.”