Whole Foods (NASDAQ: WFM ) has seen its shares plunge 40% this year on a significant slow-down in comparable store sales. Though the important metric is still high by industry standards, Wall Street has come to expect more from America's leading organic grocer.
The management at Whole Foods wants investors to know that a plan is in place to ensure that Whole Foods remains the dominant player in both natural and organic foods for years to come--and that comps will once again pick up.
On the company's most recent conference call, co-CEO Walter Robb highlighted five key initiatives Whole Foods is focused on moving forward.
Earlier this year, Whole Foods stated that it could eventually build out 1,200 stores in the United States. This was a 20% increase from its previously stated goal of 1,000 locations.
During the first-quarter earnings call, the company provided an outlook that demonstrated a commitment to opening more new stores on a yearly basis than it previously has. Currently, there are 116 more stores already in the development pipeline.
The good news for investors is that those new stores appear to be doing quite well. According to Robb, "our new store class has averaged weekly sales per store of $503,000, translating to sales per gross square foot of $727." Established Whole Foods stores average sales of over $1,000 per square foot, so there is still room to grow. But it shouldn't take these new stores long to get there: last quarter they grew revenue at a 15.8% clip.
Sprucing up older stores
Regulars know that going to Whole Foods is as much about the shopping experience as it is about actually getting groceries. Management also understands this, and it is well aware that some of Whole Foods' oldest stores could use an upgrade.
"We will refresh approximately 70% of our stores over 10 years old," Robb said. "These refreshes will range in scale from decor updates ... to full-store remodels. ... We expect these refreshed stores will see an immediate boost in comps."
Though management officially calls it "investing in value," Whole Foods is focused on lowering prices for its goods to avoid being undercut by the competition. Over the short term, there's no doubt that this could pressure margins and profitability. But over the long run, if Whole Foods is able to grow its market share, an increase in volume could more than make up the difference.
"Last year, for the first time, we implemented a significant competitive price match on hundreds of grocery items at a national level," Robb said. He also said the company's "focus going forward is primarily on perishables," which means that you should look for lower fruit and vegetable prices moving forward.
One of the most remarkable things about Whole Foods' growth over the past 20 years is that it has spent little money on advertising. Instead, the company has relied on good word of mouth, as well as the ubiquitous paper bags shoppers carry out of the store.
With newer natural/organic grocers entering the scene, the company has decided to make its first national marketing push. According to executives, the campaigns will "highlight both our value and our values."
In other words, the focus will include trying to shed the "Whole Paycheck" moniker. But so will highlighting the company's emphasis on transparency -- such as how seafood is sourced, ratings systems for meat, and a new Responsibly Grown Rating System for produce and flowers that will be rolled out by year's end.
"We are also moving forward with our digital roadmap to offer customers more choices and new ways to engage with us," Robb said. Specifically, management is zeroing in on three digital initiatives.
The first is a home delivery and online ordering program that will be rolled out in 12 to 15 markets by year's end. The second is an affinity program (think value cards) that will be tested in one city before being established nationwide in 2015. And the third will be a mobile app, for which which management didn't offer many details.
The takeaway on Whole Foods
If you're an investor in Whole Foods, watching sales and profit figures is obviously important. But with the approach Whole Foods is taking, those numbers won't jump drastically over the short-term. If you really want to understand what's going on with the company, keep track of how it's performing in these five key areas.
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