ConAgra's Eating up Sales

Concerns of a recession are everywhere, but ConAgra (NYSE: CAG  ) was too busy munching away on price increases to notice.

The maker of Healthy Choice, Peter Pan, and Chef Boyardee more than exceeded earnings expectations. The market welcomed the $0.63 per share third-quarter profits (compared to the anticipated $0.39 per share), sending the stock up over 6% on the news. But what accounted for the major earnings boost?

Think about it. ConAgra products such as Slim Jims and National Hebrew hotdogs could be the perfect foil for a recession. Accordingly, comparable consumer foods segment volume increased 4% and comparable sales growth went up 6%. In his comments, CEO Gary Rodkin specifically called out how "pricing" lifted results. So, folks aren't only buying more popcorn and peanut butter, but they're paying more for it.

Rivals such as Heinz (NYSE: HNZ  ) , Kraft (NYSE: KFT  ) , and Sara Lee (NYSE: SLE  ) should be happy to hear that this isn't the end of the price increases. ConAgra notes that it took "substantial pricing actions" this week, which should improve the one sore spot of the earnings report: a 26% decline in adjusted operating profit for the consumer foods segment and an increase of 19.2% in the overall consolidated cost of goods sold.

Sales growth in consumer foods wasn't ConAgra's only big winner. Its food and ingredients segment (30% of sales) revenue skyrocketed too, with a 23.5% increase in sales of specialty foods to food service and commercial channels. ConAgra also announced that it plans to divest its trading and merchandising operations (14% of sales) to focus on core food brands, even though this segment has done particularly well recently on wheat volatility.

ConAgra delivered a FY 2008 outlook of $1.80-$1.85, excluding items that will affect comparability. Also projected were strong margins in FY 2009 that came from pricing and cost-saving initiatives.

If ConAgra can keep the cost of its inputs from skyrocketing along with those raising fuel and commodity prices, and if the planned price increases aren't too much for consumers to bear (certainly two big outstanding questions), ConAgra should fare well, no matter what the rest of the economy does.

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