Is Whole Foods Market Headed for Disaster?

Whole Foods Market had an unimpressive showing in its last quarter, sending the stock down and investors running for the hills.

Feb 13, 2014 at 4:02PM

There's an inaccurate joke that says Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ:WFM) should really be called Whole Paycheck Market. Now, realistically, no one is likely to spend a whole paycheck at Whole Foods, but you may just have lost a whole paycheck as a Whole Foods investor. Last night after the bell, the grocer announced its first-quarter results, sending the stock down 7.5% by midday today. Is this a sign of things to come or merely a bump in the road for Whole Foods?

Whole Foods earnings fall short of expectations
While no doubt still reeling from the last time they went to the store and couldn't find a parking space, analysts were thrown into a metaphorical tizzy after Whole Foods announced earnings per share of a mere $0.42. The consensus had been that the business would earn $0.44 per share on $4.29 billion in revenue. 

This quarter's miss came from a slowdown in comparable-sales growth, which rose just 5.4% compared to the same period a year ago. For comparison, comparable-store sales grew 6.9% in fiscal 2013.The result of the slower growth was another estimate miss, with Whole Foods pulling in $4.24 billion in revenue. 

Hiding behind the lackluster sales was a new price competitiveness plan from Whole Foods. Management cited its "stepped-up value efforts" as the biggest factor in its price-per-item change, which fell 106 basis points. Although the Whole Paycheck moniker may be a myth, it's still had a negative impact on Whole Foods' image among price-conscious shoppers.

Will the trend continue?
In the new dawn of slower growth, Whole Foods dropped its full-year sales growth estimate, increased its opening and relocation costs estimate, and drastically reduced its earnings-per-share forecast. From the company's perspective, most of the bad news came in the first quarter and the rest of the year should be stronger. In reality, there are still a number of challenges that Whole Foods is going to face as the year goes on.

Competition for organic and health-food dollars is heating up across the grocery scene, with everyone trying to get a piece of that action. If income growth continues to stagnate and Whole Foods is unable to shed its premium-priced image, then it's going to have a hard time attracting customers to its new locations. The company is hoping to add around 25 stores over the rest of the fiscal year, and slow starts will lead to slow overall growth.

I still like Whole Foods' plan to try to be more price competitive, but the company has a lot of work to do on its messaging. On its call, Whole Foods said that advertising new prices usually takes nine months to a year to set in, so look for a boost in traffic in the middle of 2014 if things are looking good on that front. If not, it might be time to take that paycheck elsewhere.

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John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Andrew Marder has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Whole Foods Market. 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.

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