With dozens of companies having already reported quarterly results, we're now in the heart of earnings season. The key to making smart investment decisions with stocks releasing their quarter reports is to anticipate how they'll do before they announce results, leaving you fully prepared to respond quickly to whatever inevitable surprises arise. That way, you'll be less likely to make an uninformed knee-jerk reaction to news that turns out to be exactly the wrong move.

Let's turn to Altria (NYSE:MO). The cigarette giant remains atop the U.S. tobacco industry, but headwinds have caused the business to slow down over the past year. How will Altria respond? Let's take an early look at what's been happening with Altria over the past quarter and what we're likely to see in its quarterly report, which is expected to be released next Monday.

Stats on Altria

Analyst EPS Estimate


Change From Year-Ago EPS


Revenue Estimate

$4.33 billion

Change From Year-Ago Revenue


Earnings Beats in Past 4 Quarters


Source: Yahoo Finance.

Will Altria light up its quarterly report?
Analysts' expectations for Altria have bucked the trend of the broader market, remaining constant even as many companies have seen their estimates decline. All signs point toward slow earnings growth despite stagnant sales, and the stock has been equally muted in its recent performance, with a gain of less than half a percent since mid-October.

Altria's tepid performance recently is largely due to pressures that are affecting the entire tobacco industry. With cigarette consumption down and continuing economic challenges facing the U.S., both Altria and Reynolds American have had to announce job cuts in response to declining demand. Aggressive anti-smoking campaigns have only added to the pressure on Altria and its peers.

But some of Altria's challenges are company-specific competitive threats. For smokers for whom premium brands like Altria's Marlboro are too pricey to afford, discount brands have become more popular, and that has boosted Vector Group and Lorillard because of their respective discount-cigarette lines.

What investors should look for most from this quarter's report is how Altria plans to bolster growth. Before its spinoff of Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM), Altria looked to foreign markets as its biggest growth opportunity. Having lost those markets in the spinoff, though, Altria's primary appeal is to dividend investors looking for stable income. If sales trends continue to be troublesome this quarter, then even the strong appetite for dividends may not be enough to keep shares rising.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.