3 Reasons Whole Foods Market Inc.'s Stock Could Fall

It's no secret that owning shares of Whole Foods (Nasdaq: WFM) stock has been a great long-term investment for many investors. But while the company has helped redefine what the grocery shopping experience can be, it has run into troubles as of late.

Before diving in, it's worth noting that I recently talked about three reasons I thought the company's stock could go up in the future here.

A Whole Foods Market in North Miami. Source: Ines Hegedus-Garcia, via Flickr

While I outlined reasons I thought the stock could rise in my previous piece, its important to note the bearish arguments against Whole Foods. With that in mind, here are three major concerns Whole Foods investors should be aware of moving forward.

Comps slowing
There is, perhaps, no metric more important for grocery chains than comparable-store sales, or comps. Because just about anyone could grow sales by simply adding more stores, looking at revenue growth doesn't always tell the whole story.

Comps, on the other hand, give a more detailed picture by comparing how the average store did this year, when compared to last year. New stores are not included in the equation. This metric lets investors know if a store's concept is catching on with consumers or not. It also signals when some stores have entered the phase where they have hit market saturation.

On the whole, any large grocer that is able to grow comps faster than inflation is considered a success. For years, Whole Foods was posting numbers far higher, and the stock responded with similar rises. Lately, however, those numbers have been coming in lower, causing Wall Street to worry about saturation, and the effects of competition.

Source: SEC filings. 2014 results are from the company's first three fiscal quarters. Years 2011 to 2013 are for full fiscal years.

Part of this is understandable: as a company's base of stores grows larger and more mature, comps eventually have to come down. But management has mentioned that growing competition has something to do with it, and it's that competition that has investors worried.

Speaking of competition
When Whole Foods began offering up natural and organic food in the late 1970s, there wasn't much competition. In fact, lots of people thought the idea of a grocery store with such a focus going public was ridiculous. Since then, however, the stock has returned 2,790%.

They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. But you could forgive investors for not being too flattered at the spate of grocers following Whole Foods' blueprint into the natural/organic market. Sprouts Farmets Market (NASDAQ: SFM  ) , Natural Grocers (NYSE: NGVC  ) , and The Fresh Market (NASDAQ: TFM  ) have publicly stated that they can eventually have 1,200, 1,100, and 500 locations nationwide, respectively. Whole Foods currently has 389 stores, but believes it can one day grow into 1,200 locations.

If that expansion of competition were to occur, it would leave much less of the natural/organic market share for Whole Foods.

Source: Wal-Mart

In addition, Kroger (NYSE: KR  ) recently became the second-largest seller of organic goods in America with its Simple Truth Organic brand. And just a few months ago, Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) -- the company that accounts for one of every four dollars spent on groceries in America -- announced a partnership with Wild Oats organics that promise to offer organic food for rock-bottom prices.

I've already laid out how I think Whole Foods can overcome these obstacles, but it's undeniable that the road forward is filled with far more obstacles than it was just a few years ago.

A still-pricey stock
Despite the fact that Whole Foods' stock has fallen 33% so far this year, many view it as still expensive. In truth, it's hard to price Whole Foods' stock versus the industry.

As you can see, Wal-Mart and Kroger are much lower-priced, but their heady growth days are still ahead. And Sprouts and Natural Grocers have much higher price tags, but they also have smaller footprints than Whole Foods, which means there's more potential room to grow.

Source: E*Trade. Some earnings figures may include non-GAAP numbers.

Perhaps a better proxy would be to look and see that analysts expect Whole Foods to grow earnings by about 14% per year between now and 2017. While that's a healthy number, it's tough to say if a P/E of 25 is warranted. 

The important thing to realize is that Whole Foods has the type of valuation that lends itself to exaggerated moves--both up and down. Should the company's focus on lowering prices of goods take time to filter down to customers, earnings could take a hit in the short-term, and that could send shares lower.

The bottom line on Whole Foods
As I stated above, I'm a big believer in Whole Foods. But it's important to acknowledge the serious headwinds the company is facing in the near-term. How it performs against these headwinds will go a long way in determining which direction the stock moves in the next three to five years--which is the minimum investing horizon we like to use here at the Fool.

Top dividend stocks for the next decade
If you invest in Whole Foods for the long-run, there's definitely an expectation that the company's dividend will rise as its growth eventually ebbs. And that's ok, because the smartest investors know that dividend stocks simply crush their non-dividend paying counterparts over the long term. That's beyond dispute. 

Knowing how valuable such a portfolio might be, our top analysts put together a report on a group of high-yielding stocks that should be in any income investor's portfolio. To see our free report on these stocks, just click here now.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 21, 2014, at 2:06 PM, rajt wrote:


    Please make up your mind first and then post the articles.

    Just few days back on Aug 15th you stated three reasons for stock to rise.

    And immediately in less than a week you changed your prediction totally opposite.

    First make sure your self what you believe in and then publish the article. Don't just post it for the sake of it and do not waste our time.


  • Report this Comment On August 21, 2014, at 3:46 PM, CoreAndExplore wrote:

    Raj, Brian made it pretty clear that he's just presenting the typical bear argument as he sees it right now. It's not a representation of his particular opinion on the situation.

    And Brian: nice article overall, but there were a couple of things that might confuse people: when you're talking about the IPO, you make it seem as if that occurred in the 1970's, when in actuality it happened in 1992.

    Also, you state "As you can see, Wal-Mart and Kroger are much lower-priced, but their heady growth days are still ahead." I'm sure you meant to say "behind them" rather than "still ahead."

    Still, nice presentation of the bear case prevailing out there right now. I invested at $38 just before the stock recovered to near $43... making me wonder if I should have taken the quick profit. A 12% profit in a couple of weeks would have been nice. Oh well, I'm in it for the long-term anyway, but I think it's going to be a slow grind for quite some time, at least until the smoke clears somewhat.

  • Report this Comment On August 25, 2014, at 10:48 PM, martyhirsch wrote:

    Now that Brian has blessed us with his analysis about the downside of WFM with his "3 Reasons", here's my "1 Reason" not to own this company.

    It's not making any money for you now and I can't see why it will get any better in the future! It couldn't keep the competition at bay when it had the field to itself and now that it has tripped, it will be trampled. Brian talks about the minimum 5 year horizon "here at the Fool", but if you bought in 30 months ago you're up zippo. I say if this company is going to recover, let's see it happen while my money is working in a better place.

    And by-the buy, is the the Fool's love affair with WFM tainted more than a little because it's CEO

    is on their board?

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Brian Stoffel

Brian Stoffel has been a Fool since 2008, and a financial journalist for the Motley Fool since 2010. He tends to follow the investment strategies of Fool-founder David Gardner, looking for the most innovative companies driving positive change for the future.

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