Is Kroger Really a Must Buy?

During the last few years, The Kroger Company (NYSE: KR  ) has remained one of the top grocers in the US along with Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ: WFM  ) and SUPERVALU (NYSE: SVU  ) . In the latest quarter, Kroger once again beat expectations on both the earnings and revenue fronts. Let's have a look at Kroger and see where it stands.

First-quarter earnings
Kroger's first-quarter earnings came in at $1.09 per share, which beat the Zacks Consensus Estimate of $1.05. Earnings were also up 18.5% from the comparable quarter last year; this jump in profit resulted from strong top-line growth and the acquisition of Harris Teeter.

Total sales climbed 9.9% to $32,961 million, while identical sales grew 4.6% to $24,949 million. Operating income also jumped 5.8% to $930 million.

What's cooking at Kroger?
During the last four quarters, Kroger has returned more than $1.9 billion to its shareholders through share repurchases and dividends. In the first quarter this continued as the company bought 25.7 million shares worth $1.1 billion, which once again reflects Kroger's strong financial position.

Kroger's merger with Harris Teeter is going really well. Harris Teeter's world-class fresh foods and Kroger's great culture have made integration rather easy. According to Kroger, its management is learning a lot from Harris Teeter about how to connect with customers. Moreover, Harris Teeter's online ordering and store pickup model promises a lot of growth potential for the company.

One of the key growth drivers for Kroger during the past few quarters has been its customer-first innovation program. Each quarter, the retailer comes up with one or more innovations that improve the customer experience and enhance productivity. For this quarter, the company highlighted its technology team, which is using the latest tools to serve its customers better. One such example of this is real-time temperature monitoring in stores. Interactive sensors connected by an in-store network allow the conduction of real-time temperature checks on meat, deli, produce, and frozen food products. According to Kroger, these initiatives are not only saving money, they are also freeing up time for the company's employees to engage with customers.

With consumers becoming more health-conscious, most retailers are now investing heavily in organic and natural foods. Kroger is also adding more products to its organic food brand, Simple Truth, in order to capitalize on this growing market. The company expects Simple Truth to reach $1 billion brand status by the end of fiscal 2014.

Even though it expects high inflation during this year, Kroger has raised its full-year adjusted net earnings guidance from $3.14-$3.25 per share to $3.19-$3.27 per share. Further, it now expects same-store sales to grow by 3% to 4%; its earlier guidance for comps growth was 2.5% to 3.5%.

Industry peers
Whole Foods Market reported an average quarter as both its earnings and revenue fell short of analysts' projections. The company registered EPS of $0.38 on revenue of $3.32 billion, while analysts at Zacks had anticipated earnings per share of $0.41 on revenue of $3.35 billion.

The company recently announced that it will be the first US supermarket chain to eliminate all genetically modified ingredients from its products. To stay competitive in the US organic market, Whole Foods is also driving down its prices to allure more customers to its stores. Additionally, the company is making aggressive expansion plans as it expects to open 36 to 39 stores by the end of fiscal 2014.

During its recent quarter, SUPERVALU posted solid figures on account of an improved operating margin and various cost-cutting initiatives. The company earned $0.18 per share, as opposed to a loss of $0.11 a share in the same period a year earlier. Similarly, revenue for the company grew 1.3% year-over-year to $3.95 billion. During the quarter, the company generated its largest chunk of revenue from its leading Save-a-Lot stores. Furthermore, to increase its footprint in the U.S, Save-a-Lot plans to open a new distribution center in the city of Denver this June.

Final thoughts
Kroger's recent quarterly results were nothing short of impressive as its earnings and sales kept growing. For this reason, it's constantly rewarding its shareholders through buyback programs. Its acquisition of Harris Teeter has already started to pay off, which can be seen by its solid revenue numbers. Going forward, Harris Teeter will continue to drive the company's growth.

Kroger has rightly identified organic foods as a high-potential market. Simple Truth, with its fresh and high-quality products, will ensure that the company remains competitive in the natural food business. Moreover, the company expects to do a great job this year too, which is evident from its strong earnings guidance. Taking all this into account, I believe Kroger is still one of the best retail buys at this point in time.

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