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Sprouts Farmers Market Inc  (NASDAQ:SFM)
Q3 2018 Earnings Conference Call
Nov. 01, 2018, 10:00 a.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good day, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for standing by. Welcome to the Sprouts Farmers Market Third Quarter 2018 Earnings Conference Call. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode. Following management's prepared remarks, we'll be hosting a question-and-answer session and our instructions will be given at that time. (Operator Instructions) As a reminder, this conference call may be recorded for replay purposes.

It is now my pleasure to hand the conference over to Susannah Livingston. Ma'am, you may begin.

Susannah Livingston -- Investor Relations

Thank you and good morning everyone. We are pleased you have taken the time to join Sprouts on our third quarter 2018 earnings call. Amin Maredia, Chief Executive Officer; Jim Nielsen, President and Chief Operating Officer; and Brad Lukow, Chief Financial Officer are also on the call with me today. The earnings release announcing our third quarter 2018 results, our 10-Q and the webcast of this call can be accessed through the Investor Relations section of our website at about.sprouts.com.

During this call, management may make certain forward-looking statements, including statements regarding our 2018 expectations and guidance. These statements involve a number of risks and uncertainties and could cause actual results to differ materially from those described in the forward-looking statements. For more information, please refer to the risk factors discussed in our SEC filings along with the commentary on forward-looking statements at the end of our earnings release issued today. In addition, our remarks today include references to non-GAAP measures. For a reconciliation of our non-GAAP measures to the GAAP figures, please see the tables in our earnings release.

With that, let me hand it over to Amin.

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, Susannah. Good morning everyone and thanks for joining our call today. Last month, we rang the bell on NASDAQ to celebrate our fifth year as a public company. While much has changed in this industry during these five years. Looking back, I'm extremely proud of what our team has accomplished. Since our IPO, we have nearly doubled our store count from 160 to 315 today, entered 11 new states accelerated innovation across the store with emphasis and deli in private label continued to build technology and talent in our stores and Support Office for scale and many other accomplishments. All resulting in more than doubling of revenue and EBITDA over the past five years, and enhancing our business model, which will continue to increase our return on invested capital, which is stronger today than it was five years ago.

This is a testament to the strength of our business model of making healthy eating easy understandable and more -- most importantly, affordable. All of this is supported by an extremely talented team that keeps us on trend and moving forward. Today, I remain excited as we continue to build a brand that our customers love as we've remained laser focused on building long-term shareholder value.

Turning to the third quarter, sales rose 10% to 1.3 billion. These results were driven by a comp of 1.5% with continued positive traffic and tonnage trends as well as strong new store productivity. We had strong openings in our new states of Pennsylvania and Washington. As Sprouts expands, our unique model is bringing healthy and relevant offerings in cities and states across the country. Solid operations, product innovation and the evolution of our store merchandising continues to drive strong new store productivity.

During the third quarter, we opened 12 new stores and with the addition of two new states, we are now in 19 states coast to coast. Since the end of the quarter, we have opened two additional stores, bringing our total store openings to 30 for the year and our new store pipeline remains strong for the coming years. The promotional environment has remained fairly consistent this year while it remains competitive, we continue to maintain a proven pricing strategies across our different regions and within our various departments.

At the same time, we continue to face an overall deflationary environment driven primarily by produce. Despite this headwind, Sprouts drove a positive comp and a strong two-year stack of 6.1% in the third quarter.

Now, I'd like to discuss our 2018 strategic priorities, focused on product innovation, customer experience, team members and technology. Sprouts has always embraced a small format, which creates meaningful engagement between our team members and customers. Every year, we build on these customer relationships to further enhance the connection and shopping experience at Sprouts. This year a few of our new stores are incorporating a fresh innovative design to reflect the latest customer trends.

In our Market Corner Deli area, these enhancements improves the customer service and allows customers clear sight across our healthy deli offering. Importantly, our consumers continue to want fresh and healthy food and our expanded offering of ready to eat, heat or cook meal solutions are resonating very well with our customers. With our expanded deli offering, now and more than half of our stores, our customers can choose meal types that best fit their lifestyle and the convenience of a full service healthy grocery store.

In private label, our quality, unique and great-tasting product offering at an exceptional value are increasingly resonating with existing and new customers. Sprouts has been an authority in natural and organic foods for more than a decade and apply this experience and knowledge to stay ahead of trends and the products we develop for customers.

Today, more than half of our private label products are non-GMO or organic and it's this quality that continues to drive traffic to our stores. Private label remains a healthy category at Sprouts and that only 13% penetration today. We believe we have many more years of growth in private label through new product introductions and increased customer engagement and messaging. Private label products continued to help drive our top line and with higher gross margins will provide added flexibility, when it comes to further investments as necessary in the business.

On the home delivery front, our partnership with Instacart has continued to grow and today we are in more than 200 stores, covering most of our major markets with the remaining markets to come online in early 2019. The home delivery remains a small percentage of grocery shopping in the US today. Our early involvement and experience in this space combined with strong brand, trust, loyalty and execution continues to allow us to think about new and exciting ways to serve the customer outside the store.

Second, as we called out last quarter, tax reform was a catalyst to allow us to invest an additional $10 million this year in our team members. Sprouts continues to differentiate in leadership development through pay and benefits and fostering a culture of customer and team member engagement. One of my favorite events for our leadership growth is Sprouts Fast, which recently occurred in the third quarter.

This year, we invited more than 600 of our grocery and vitamin managers, our largest event ever. The purpose is to ensure our store team members learned about the strategic direction of the company, continued to build under leadership skills to inspire, our people lead purpose driven culture and most importantly, understand the vendors' unique product attributes and brand heritage firsthand. This training allows each manager to return to the individual store more knowledgeable of the company and the products they sell.

Lastly on technology, we continue to learn from the implementation of fresh item management, a company wide initiative that will further improve, shrink and in-stock positions. The early results in bakery are encouraging as we are seeing future cost efficiencies. We want to ensure this system is rolled out at the right speed that changed management is accepted at every level in the store and we allow -- adapted to all other department rollouts.

Overall, we remained very pleased with the early results, expect future savings in the back half of -- starting in the back half of 2018 and are building a smart technology for scale. In summary, while the environment from five years ago has changed, our unique small format Farmers Market model focused on health, value, selection and service is resonating more than ever with greater adoption in existing and new markets with our customers giving us confidence in the future growth of Sprouts.

With that let me turn the call over to Brad to cover our financial results and 2018 guidance.

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, Amin, and good morning everyone. I'll begin by discussing some of the business drivers for the third quarter and then review our guidance for 2018. For the third quarter, sales were 1.3 billion, up 10% over the prior year driven by comp sales growth of 1.5% consistent traffic year-to-date, positive tonnage and solid new store productivity in the low '80s.

Overall, a lack of inflation continued in the third quarter, almost entirely produce related. Offsetting this pressure was continued strong growth in private label, our non-perishable departments and our deli enhancements that continue to resonate with our customers. Our new store productivity remained strong, a testament to our model being well received in both new and existing markets. These trends provide us confidence in raising the bottom end of the EPS and net sales guidance and tightening our comp range for the full year.

For the third quarter, gross profit increased by 10% to $382 million and our gross margin rate increased by 5 basis points to 28.8% compared to the same period last year. This leverage was primarily due to improved merchandise margins in certain categories, partially offset by higher occupancy costs. Direct store expense increased 12% to $281 million, an increase of approximately 40 basis points to 21.2% of sales compared to the same period last year. This deleverage was consistent with our plan and was primarily driven by planned investments in our team members' wages and benefits, as well as higher depreciation expense.

In addition, we continue to see our customers shifting to use more credit cards, leading to pressure on this line item from higher interchange expenses. SG&A increased 10% to $44 million or 3.3% of sales for the quarter, flat to the same period last year. This primarily reflects increased strategic investments and advertising costs that were offset by lower bonus expense compared to last year.

As well for the third quarter, our pre-opening costs were higher than last year by 10 basis points due to nearly doubling our store openings this quarter as compared to the same period last year. EBITDA for the third quarter increased 4% to 81 million, a decrease of 40 basis points to 6.1% of sales when compared to the same period last year. The decrease in margin was mainly driven by increased operating costs from our strategic wage investments previously discussed.

Net income for the third quarter was $38 million and diluted earnings per share was $0.29. During the third quarter, we recorded a $3 million benefit due to an adopted tax calculation method change in conjunction with the adoption of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Excluding this benefit, net income was $35 million and diluted earnings per share was $0.27, an increase of $0.04 or 17% over the same period last year.

The improvement in reported earnings per share is primarily due to higher sales, a lower effective tax rate and fewer shares outstanding due to our share repurchase program. Shifting to the balance sheet and liquidity, we continue to self-fund our unit growth and strategic initiatives with solid operating cash flows of $235 million year-to-date. We invested $129 million in capital expenditures, net of landlord reimbursement primarily for new stores.

During the third quarter, we repurchased approximately 700,000 shares for $15 million. We ended the quarter with $17 million in cash and cash equivalents and 283 million available under our current share repurchase authorization. Our borrowings on our $700 million revolving credit facility decreased to $435 million, bringing our net debt to EBITDA, down to 1.6 times. Return on invested capital was 16.2% aided by a lower effective tax rate compared to 13.6% last year. Year-to-date through October 29, we have repurchased 8.4 million shares of common stock, returning $193 million of capital to shareholders.

Now, let me turn to 2018 guidance. Due to the continued solid earnings performance for the year, we are raising the bottom end of our net sales range to 11% to 11.5% for the full-year and EPS guidance by $0.02 to a range of $1.28 to $1.30, including the $0.02 benefit in the third quarter for the tax calculation method change. As well, we have tightened our full-year comp sales growth to 1.7% to 2%.

Due to the adopted tax calculation method change this quarter, we expect our effective tax rate to be approximately 18% for the year returning to a more normalized range of 25% to 26% in the fourth quarter and into 2019 under the new tax reform structure. We also lowered our CapEx spend slightly to a range of $160 million to $165 million net of landlord reimbursement due to timing of projects. And lastly, consistent with our prior guidance, we will open 30 new stores in 2018, which are all open at this time.

A few additional items to note on the full-year 2018 guidance. We now expect inflation to be negative for the full-year and as it relates to margins, we expect gross margins to be near flat year-over-year. We expect DSE to deleverage by approximately 35 basis points for the full-year primarily related to additional wage investments from the tax reform savings. We continue to expect some deleverage in SG&A for the full-year consistent to what we have seen on a year-to-date basis through the third quarter.

Below the EBIT line, we expect interest expense to be approximately $28 million, including approximately $11 million related to interest for financing and capital leases. We would also like to take this opportunity to discuss the more significant changes in connection with pending lease accounting standard, which we will adopt at our prospective basis at the beginning of our 2019 fiscal year. As you know, we lease all of our store properties and the vast majority are currently accounted for as operating leases with rent expense charged on a straight-line basis.

Under the new lease accounting standard, these leases will continue to be classified as operating and we will record an asset and a related obligation on the balance sheet and expect these amounts to be material. Rent expense for these operating leases will continue to be calculated and recorded on a basis consistent with the current standard. In addition, we have approximately 45 store leases that are currently accounted for as financing leases. For these leases, the buildings and related improvements are reflected as assets on our balance sheet and we record a depreciation charge and interest expense related to the asset and lease obligation respectively.

Under the new lease accounting standard, we believe that these leases will be transitioned to operating leases. This reclassification will result in an increase to our rent expense, which is included in EBITDA and a decrease in interest expense going forward. In addition, this rent expense will be recorded on a straight-line basis. This change in expense recognition to a straight line model as compared to financing lease accounting under the current standard will result in a net incremental expense for the year.

Importantly, none of these accounting changes will have any impact on the future cash flows or liquidity of the company. While we are still working through the adoption process, we wanted to provide you with our current analysis of the lease accounting impacts for 2019.

In closing, we remain confident that our strategic investments are establishing a strong foundation for ongoing success and we remain encouraged by the solid free cash flow generation and healthy new store productivity that we continue to experience as we expand across the country.

With that, we'd like to open up the call for questions. Operator?

Questions and Answers:

Operator

Thank you, sir. (Operator Instructions) And our first question will come from Chuck Grom with Gordon Haskett. Your line is now open.

Charles Grom -- Gordon Haskett Research Advisors -- Analyst

Hey, thanks. Good morning. Just on the top line, you look like you tweak down your guidance a little bit. Just wondering, if you could dissect the reasons for that change in your view?

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

Yeah. We adjusted our guidance based on what we're seeing primarily on the lower inflation or deflation side of the business. So we kind of continue to see some level of deflation. But the overall business continues to hold strong in terms of tonnage in traffic and so that's what the guidance reflects.

Charles Grom -- Gordon Haskett Research Advisors -- Analyst

Okay. And then just my follow-up is one of you guys give an update on your fresh item management strategy and where you think the benefits could be throughout the P&L over the next couple of years?

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

Yeah, it's Brad. As we've talked on recent calls, we have a pretty robust implementation program to roll fresh item management across all the fresh departments between now and into the third quarter of next year. We're very pleased with our progress today. We are very cognizant around the change management program, which is critically important in these types of initiatives to get right. So we're on track and as Amin mentioned in his earlier remarks, we expect to start to see the benefits in terms of better in-stock positions, improved shrink and that will come in the beginning of the third quarter of next year basically, the back half of next year. So we're on track.

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

And I think I just want to reiterate that the program is intended to ensure that we can have the right level of inventory to both maximize sales and have the right level to also assist on shrink. So it's an exercise of both sales and better in-stock and sales as well as lower shrink.

Charles Grom -- Gordon Haskett Research Advisors -- Analyst

Great. Thanks very much.

Operator

Thank you. And our next question will come from the line of Mark Carden with UBS. Your line is now open.

Mark Carden -- UBS -- Analyst

Good morning. Thanks a lot for taking the question. I wanted to dig in a bit on the merch margin. Can you talk about how you've been able to manage through industry cost pressures and presumably mix has helped but if you've been able to fully pass through higher costs scenarios like freight or have you been seeing any increased headwinds on that front? Thanks.

Jim Nielsen -- President and Chief Operating Officer

Hi, Mark. It's Jim Nielsen. As it relates to the gross margin, yeah, we did have a little bit of benefit on the mix side by the time. You know ,it's really -- four key things that we continue to focus on its that people product process and partners. From a people perspective, we have hundreds of years of experience here in Natural Foods and a very passionate team in the field that -- you know, once we guess it helps you in live a better life.

The product side, we're always on the leading edge of innovation in terms of attributes. And then of course, the private label and deli helped us mix out on that side and the process side, it's the investments we've had in the technology that's really helping us be more strategic in our investments that coupled with some of the human capital we've added recently is really helping to support the price optimization from optimization.

And then the great partners we have out there in the marketplace today have also been extremely supportive and as it relates to your last question around freight, the team here internally on the freight side has done an excellent job of looking at our contracts, we do in the contracts to offset some of those increases that were in the market from the ELD mandate as well as fuel costs. And as I talked about in prior calls, we are starting to see some cost increases on the non-perishable side, but where -- we've been able to pass those through that retail today.

Mark Carden -- UBS -- Analyst

Great. And as a follow-up, you've previously noted that Sprouts has attracted most of its new customers from conventional competitors. Are you still seeing similar patterns taking place today and in markets where your conventional competitors have been undertaken some major store renovation projects? Have you been seeing any outsized share gains? Thanks.

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, I think broadly across the board in our model continues to resonate really well. And as we continued to Jim just spoke to this differentiate our business and in fresh, health and convenience, so at Sprouts if you step back and look at what our store left field the products we carried the merchandising today versus three to five years ago, it's quite drastically different and that's a kudos to our team to continue to evolve with the customer and it's really across the store. It's quality in produce and quality in meat and seafood it's made in-house, ready to eat, heat and cook items, a wider selection and unique products in grocery and frozen and service-led BMS and HBA departments.

So in Sprouts, we feel that we're positioned better than we've ever been in this marketplace, particularly when it comes to authentic health and as well as fresh prepared and convenience. So in our core stores without cannibalization continue to drive very strong traffic and we really feel good and Brad talked about our new store productivity. So overall, we're continuing to move and focus on what we're great at, and our customers are certainly responding well to it.

Mark Carden -- UBS -- Analyst

Great. Thanks again.

Operator

Thank you. And our next question will come from the line of Edward Kelly with Wells Fargo. Your line is now open.

Edward Kelly -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Yeah. Hi, guys. Good morning. I wanted to circle back on the comps. Could you just give us a bit more color on the cadence of the comps throughout the quarter both in total and from a traffic standpoint? And then what was Q3 inflation overall and what are you expecting for Q4?

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

Yeah. As far as cadence of the comps, Q3 and Q4 last year were similar at 4.6 (ph) and you heard us this morning. Our two-year stack was 6.1 (ph) for Q3. In terms of -- we expect a fairly good consistency in Q3 and Q4 sitting -- where we're sitting today and in terms of deflation, we expect still consistent deflation from Q3 to Q4 and then we'll see what the planned things look like early in the year and we'll have more guidance for 2019 on our year-end call but -- and it's primarily in produce. So it's limited to one part of the store. So again, we really focus on the controllables, which are tonnage and traffic and we're seeing good momentum there.

Edward Kelly -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

And just to clarify, I think last quarter you said overall cost deflation was just over 1%. How did Q3 look relative to that?

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

The third quarter was more deflationary than it was in the second quarter. And again, I mean indicated, it's largely produce in just a little bit in poultry area.

Edward Kelly -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Are you expecting that to worsen in Q4?

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

Not to worsen, we're seeing pretty consistent, cost deflation levels currently in the fourth quarter relative to Q3.

Edward Kelly -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Okay. And then just a quick follow-up. As you think about, I know it's early, right. So you don't probably want to talk too much about next year, but the consensus number for next year has a reacceleration in top line and I was just curious, if you could help us out, maybe qualitatively on the items that you think can drive better momentum for you next year?

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

Yeah. I mean I think the overall momentum in the business remains quite strong, particularly on the fresh side. And then the non-perishables also particularly in certain areas of the nonperishable. So I think we'll wait till the year-end call to give full guidance for the year, but you know on a two-year stack basis certainly will be positioned better going into next year and certainly it's been a deflationary year this year. So to the extent that that settles down that perhaps provides a little bit of upside. And the last comment, I would make is the one that's a little bit more known as cannibalization. We expect cannibalization to be relatively neutral to potentially down a bit. For next year, so those are some puts and takes, but really I think we'll wait till the year-end call to provide broader color of what we expect to see for next year.

Edward Kelly -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

All right. Thanks guys, and good luck in the Q4.

Operator

Thank you. And our next question will come from line of Karen Short with Barclays. Your line is now open.

Karen Short -- Barclays -- Analyst

Hi, thanks. Just on the comps. So looking at the guidance for the full-year on comps, the implied range for 4Q is fairly wide. So wondering, if you could talk a little bit about, -- I mean I'm kind of getting 40 basis points on the low end to 1.9 on the high end. Can you talk a little bit about, where you're thinking in terms of how we should think about that?

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. Karen, it's Brad. As we've indicated, we're seeing pretty consistent behavior in the marketplace in terms of the competitive standpoint. Also from an inflation, deflation perspective quite consistent relative to the third quarter and so everything that we're seeing to-date lines up to what our expectations are for the fourth year -- sorry the fourth quarter. I mean it's a very tight range. If you look at the implied mid-point if you will, for our full-year guidance.

Karen Short -- Barclays -- Analyst

Okay. And then in terms of merchandise margins, Jim, the things that you kind of pointed to, all of those things in terms of the drivers are stronger than expected merchandise margins, seem pretty sustainable. Is that a fair comment, I mean because that's obviously something that was the upside surprise this quarter?

Jim Nielsen -- President and Chief Operating Officer

Yeah. So as I look at assuming the competitive landscape sales as it is today, we continue to improve as we've talked about on the product side, people side. And then the technology that we're on boarding here and with the right human capital behind it. We're confident around keeping margins stable. The only thing that I can't look forward and tell you about is, what's the competitive landscape, you know, look like in 2019, but assuming it's in line with 2018. We should have -- will have stability and gross margin.

Karen Short -- Barclays -- Analyst

Okay. And then sorry, just last question, Brad. In terms of that comment on the net incremental expense. So rent is obviously going up more than interest is going down for the change in accounting. If you have a dollar amount, you could give us for '19?

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

We are still working through the mechanics, right now as we speak. So it's a little bit premature for us to come out with a range, but I would just put -- try to put it in a little bit of context for you today in terms of the interest in depreciation charge in connection with those roughly 45 leases. It's $11 million is the expected number for this year and depreciation is around 4 million. So we know that 15 million today is largely going to go above the line. The only mechanics that we're working through is obviously there is a difference in the expense timing recognition under a straight line model, straight-line rent expense which were those leases will convert to is our expectation versus under the current treatment, which is more of a debt model. And so that's basically, where we are at this point in time and we'll be able to obviously give you precise numbers when we're back in touch with you in the New Year.

Karen Short -- Barclays -- Analyst

Got it. Thanks.

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

You're welcome.

Thank you. And our next question will come from the line of Chris Mandeville with Jefferies. Your line is now open.

Chris Mandeville -- Jefferies -- Analyst

Hey, good morning. I mean just point of clarity based on one of your comments, you just referenced around being better positioned in 2019 on the two-year stack. What's that based offer? Is that a 6.1 (ph) that you reported in Q3 or what the midpoint of implied guidance for Q4, so just on the...

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

Yeah. Let me clarify, I was speaking to specifically the one year, not the two-year, and then also just the comments around deflation little early to call yet, but it's been quite deflationary this year. And so, we'll see where the next share lines up and then cannibalization, we expect to be slightly lower next year. So, really speaking to the one-year, not the two-year.

Chris Mandeville -- Jefferies -- Analyst

Okay, thank you. And then again, I realize you're not providing official 2019 guidance today. But I think we're all generally looking at it at this point though. Given your comments that the lease accounting change is going to be a net expense increased and then considering how fresh item management won't really benefit things until the back half of the year. I was hoping, you could maybe help us understand or think about overall expense leverage with what investments we made in 2016 and really I think in 2017 in this year if comps, do you see some improvement on the one-year, can we expect to leverage on DSE and SG&A?

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

So here's what I would say, Chris. And first-of-all, I'd like to just reemphasize the fact that all this noise around lease accounting has zero impact on future cash flows. It's an accounting exercise. So if we park that for a second, we've talked about how we've made investments funded out of our tax reform savings this year that will amount to $10 million of investments spend this year, allowing us to get ahead of future minimum wage rate increases that would have otherwise hit us in '19 and '20. We need to lap that through the first quarter. So we don't lapped out to the beginning of the second quarter.

And as we've stated previously, that's about 25 basis points for the full-year this year, so it's about 6 bps of headwind in the first quarter, as well the lion's share of the heavy lifting and OpEx expense largely related to training initiative to get the FIM (ph) and happens in the first half and into the third quarter of 2019 with benefits expected thereafter. Hopefully that helps.

Chris Mandeville -- Jefferies -- Analyst

It does. Thanks. Thank you, guys.

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

You're welcome.

Operator

Thank you. And our next question will come from the line of Ken Goldman with JPMorgan. Your line is now open.

Ken Goldman -- JPMorgan -- Analyst

Hi. Change to subject from 2019, even I want to ask more about it and ask about even longer term, which is you guys have talked about 30 new stores annually. And there's so much expected growth in delivery and we have different companies talking about dark stores and so forth. I am just curious, if you still think 30 is the right number? It really hasn't changed a whole lot for you and if delivery continues to do extremely well, would you consider pushing that number down a little bit or is it too early to think about that?

Jim Nielsen -- President and Chief Operating Officer

And now, Ken, that's a good question. So if you step back and think about -- where Sprouts is today, we're in 19 states, but only about half of those states that we're fairly strongly penetrated. And so as a company, we've got a long runway to open stores in many, many new markets and some of our recent markets that we've added stores like Florida, Maryland, State of Washington -- sorry, the Mid-Atlantic state of Washington. We've just got started in.

So one of the benefits that we have is, we actually can take the world of e-commerce and home delivery et cetera into account in where we're placing stores and in our new store strategy to maximize the potential of in-store and e-commerce sales, which are relatively low today, but to the extent they continue to grow. We think that Sprouts will be better positioned to play stores and leverage without having duplicative cost of either shutting down stores or changing the business model compared to many other conventionals.

Ken Goldman -- JPMorgan -- Analyst

Okay, thank you for that. And then, I wanted to ask another sort of broad question, which is every quarter you guys, I think rightfully talk up a potential for private label, the goal is still 15% of sales. You reasonably close to that goal already. I know you'll never get sort of as high as some of your more traditional supermarket players, just given your product mix. But 15% still strikes me as a bit low, so why shouldn't this number be higher in the long run given how constructive you are on these store brands?

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

Hey, Ken it's a good color. Last call I actually elevated that a little bit. But, I began --

Ken Goldman -- JPMorgan -- Analyst

(inaudible)

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. Just to step back real quickly is, and you know, we're well positioned there. We continue to get good consumer -- back around, not only taste but attributes and the quality of the product and value, which is again as Amin mentioned or Brad mentioned in the call, it's over 30% penetration topline, it's right around 20. And where we get more confident in that '16 to '18, more like 2021 hitting maybe 2020 on the '16 and -- it's just a SKU productivity that we're seeing. So it's not a -- it's not a item count growth, it's SKU productivity growth, which is about 60, 40 -- more items in a basket, 40% of that is being driven by new baskets.

So the brands resonating, the eating experience has been fantastic and that's propelling the productivity and Amin mentioned on the call as well, we're going to continue to work harder on doing the content development around how we are differentiated whether it's a sourcing, the attributes of the product or how its crafted and very, very confident on that '16 and talent at 2020 or early 2021.

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

Ken, this is Amin. I just wanted to add one more comment is, compared to -- again, if we're comparing the conventionals remember that 60% of our business is fresh. So when we think about this 13% penetration, you almost have to start removing some of the items, the sales in produce and bulk and some of the other fresh departments, where you don't have as much private label concentration. And so, the private label concentration tends to be more in the non-perishables and certainly some of our perishable brands, where we have packaged products, but more in the nonperishable. So a number of our nonperishable departments were either around or slightly north of 20% today.

And we'll continue to grow that mix. But what's important to Sprouts compared -- when you compare our model to others is, we're laser focused on given the best fresh help and unique product to the customer, and we recognize that's the best can come from private label, it can come from big manufacturers or it can come from emerging brands. So our goal is to have the best product for the customer at the end of the day. So I think this balance is a good balance and we'll continue to grow the private label brand at the appropriate pace.

Ken Goldman -- JPMorgan -- Analyst

Okay. Thanks so much.

Operator

Thank you. And our next question will come from Ben Bienvenu with Stephens, Inc. Your line is now open.

Benjamin Bienvenu -- Stephens, Inc. -- Analyst

Hey, good morning guys.

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

Good morning.

Benjamin Bienvenu -- Stephens, Inc. -- Analyst

I wanted to ask about Instacart. I think the prior expectation is that this partnership would seem to be neutral in 4Q. I think there may have been prior commentary that it was a potential negative impact to comps or EBITDA in 3Q. Could you just clarify, what the impact might have been in 3Q and then your expectation for when that might be additive going forward?

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

Yeah, hi Ben. It's Brad. As we did indicate on our second quarter call, given the transitioning into Instacart into more markets coming off the Amazon platform. We did experience headwind from a comp standpoint in both Q2 and Q3, and we're starting to now exceed or basically at and starting to exceed the levels at which we were previously at when you compare to last year, so I would expect that it's fairly neutral.

Overall, from a total fourth quarter perspective in our expectation based on what we're seeing today is that we'll continue to ramp up as into 2019 as the customer adoption has been very solid and, you know, Sprouts is really a leader from a perspective of the customer service scores on home delivery and we're very proud of that, and we expect that that will continue going forward.

Benjamin Bienvenu -- Stephens, Inc. -- Analyst

Okay, great. And then I have a follow-up question on gross margin as it relates to merchandise margins. Just to clarify, did merchandise margins improve exclusive of mix or does it improve mix, drive up merchandise margins? And then just thinking, going forward about improved merchandise margins as it relates to mix. You talked about private label, some of the deli programs, could you just talk about your expectations for how mix could positively impact gross margins going forward?

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

Yeah. I'll start and then Jim can add on. Certainly with the gross margin, merch margin improvement in the third quarter was a combination of the fact that we continue to see very strong growth in our nonperishable departments. We see continued very strong growth in private label, which obviously comes out a little bit of a higher margin rate. And importantly, we continue to really push on the deli initiative that's resonating strongly with customers as we see that in increased traffic. So it was a mix of those three that drove an increase from a year-over-year point of view in the third quarter.

Jim Nielsen -- President and Chief Operating Officer

Yeah. I wouldn't add much to that other than the fact that we talked about the mix as we look forward. The whole idea of enhancing and do -- what we do in terms of private label and deli is being relative to consumer. And it's just a balance over time and know that we need to enhance that overall gross margin anticipating that we will have some competitive investments that we will have to make over time. So we're anticipating flat gross margin as we look forward into 2019.

Operator

Thank you. And our next question will come from line of Paul Trussell with Deutsche Bank. Your line is now open.

Paul Trussell -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

Good morning. Just to circle back to the expense conversation from before. Just curious as you head into 2019, is your view that the wage investments that you've made is enough from a competitive standpoint and that as we move toward second quarter and beyond of '19, your view is that incremental wage investments won't be necessary at this time. And then also just wanted to get maybe a little bit more additional color on some of the other puts and takes within expenses as we think about advertising spend as you move into new markets, healthcare, which has been a topic over the past year or two as well. And just some of the other puts and takes around DSE will be helpful. Thank you.

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, I think you've asked some pretty broad questions. I think that the broad way, Brad spoke to some of the natural compression in the first quarter related to the $10 million investments. In terms of the P&L overall our goals are to,as Jim said, is to be relatively neutral on gross margin and then try to have some of the technology and initiatives that we are putting in place is to use those technology initiatives to help offset any -- offset many of the pressures that you just spoke to broadly. There is some timing, Brad spoke to the timing of those investments rollout and the change management required and the costs required to roll them out.

But overall, broadly speaking, over the next one to three years, we feel fairly well positioned to overall try to get to a place where our goal would be to get closer to a more neutral state in EBITDA margin. That's certainly our goals. I think what Jim spoke to is we will always lay the competitive environment, sort of to the side and to the extent that that brings incremental headwind, we'll have to work through those as necessary. But that's really how I would answer broadly speaking, unless Brad add any specificity, if helpful here.

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

I would just say, Paul, that certainly because we will be lapping that wage -- incremental wage investments through the first quarter of next year. Together with the timing of the rollout of fresh item management, which is largely an OpEx investment will pressure the first half, but expectations that we will start seeing those benefits in the back half. And I'd also add that the team has done a great job on the goods, not for resale procurement piece where we still see a nice runway ahead of us to continue to offset the pressures that you mentioned, certainly healthcare and as well, we're looking to take greater advantage of the opportunity to push on the digital space and advertising with the customer and again some of these operational savings that we get including labor productivity that we're experiencing today and we'll continue to drive through 2019, our offsets for these investments that we're making. You know our view is over the longer term three to five years because we've got the tailwinds of all these systems initiatives as well as the merchandising initiatives to have stable EBIT margins as we look out over the next several years.

Jim Nielsen -- President and Chief Operating Officer

Hey, Paul. This is Jim and I hate to do this, because we don't generally thought three times. But we always talk about wage. I think we will look at the entire benefit plan and the team's been one very strategic investments we make in wages, not only about geographies but job classes. So strategic in that capacity but also enhancing the overall benefit. So today, now all team members in our store are subject to incentives.

Now we have clerk bonuses, service store bonuses, so it's really pay for performance on top of that getting in everyday discount of 50% on all the goods that we do sell promotional or regular price. And then that whole culture that we've created that people powered purpose driven culture is really helping us retain talent and acquire talent as we move into new marketplaces, which is ultimately driving that productivity measure, which Brad just mentioned.

Paul Trussell -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

I appreciate the color. Just a follow-up also on Instacart, you mentioned healthy adoption rates. Just curious of any other learning's, incremental learnings over the past few months, if you could speak to maybe the percent of the customer base utilizing Instacart that was not a known Sprouts shopper before basket size or penetration of sales and some of the early stores that roll it out. Any additional color would be helpful.

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, I think just broadly, the growth is going well. Brad talked about that our brand and the trust and and health is resonating very well online and it's converting into the high scores. In terms of overall model of home delivery, one of the benefits for Sprouts compared to other conventional is because our stores are more spread out. We tend to see more incrementality, which is key to be able to offset the additional cost of delivery for to be value add to overall profitability to the company.

So we like that component of Instacart quite well, and certainly as you would expect that many other retailers see is our baskets are significantly higher online than they are in the store. And one of the other things that's quite unique is, we're seeing very strong private label penetration online compared to in-store. And so the way to market and message private label online is certainly becomes easier then sometimes in-store experience around private label.

So overall, we are very -- we feel really good about the health of out-of-store channels and going into 2019, are starting to explore other ways to add value to the customer and really resonating looking at it from a customer perspective and looking to test. Maybe couple other channels and see how it resonates with the customer.

Paul Trussell -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

Thank you. Best of luck.

Operator

(Operator Instructions) And our next question will come from Vincent Sinisi with Morgan Stanley. Your line is now open.

Vincent Sinisi -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Hey, great. Good morning, guys. Thanks very much for taking my question. Wanted to go to, I mean you mentioned early on in the call that a few of your new stores are having a new design. It sounds from what you said, it's more kind of further expansion in the deli, ready-to-eat areas. I guess for all us on the phone, who haven't been into however many might be in this format, did the stores look materially different? Is there any kind of notable reallocation of spaces inside that would be helpful for us. And then I guess from what you maybe seeing, I don't know how long these might have been out there at this point, but are you looking at these new designs as maybe the kind of the prototype for '19 growth?

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

Yeah. So overall, what we were really focused on is, how can we enhance -- as I talked about earlier on the call that our product and our allocation of product and our focus on private label and deli and fresh meat and seafood and health cut meat have continued to evolve over time. So we wanted to take a look at, how can we improve the customer experience and what can we do better. Overall, the allocation of space in the store to departments is not materially different.

But what the customer is telling us is, it's resonating significantly better with a broader customer base, particularly the Millennials. So we really like that. And we wanted to sort of separate also some of the customer service elements to the production elements in the store. So we were very thoughtful with a laser focus on experience. Early, we've put five of these stores out there to test and we'll continue to tweak it, but early indications is, it's resonating very well with the customer.

And what we're looking to do today is continue to tweak it a little and it will be our new sort of prototype, if you will going forward, but it's just continued merchandising enhancements something the company's always done, and so maybe a third of our stores in '19 will be on that platform and then will be a new sort of prototype going forward. And we're pretty excited to see the impact that it's having on deli and fresh meat and seafood at the case and beer and wine in fresh bakery, so very positive overall to the store and I think it will help our new store productivity going forward.

Vincent Sinisi -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Okay, that's helpful. Thank you. And then maybe just a question on Instacart I think early, early, early on with some the online initiatives, I think you guys had mentioned that the large majority of the orders that were coming in were outside of your typical 5 to 7 minute drive time. Could you give us an update if that is still the case and if you are maybe either currently or in the future maybe going to test as you continue to build your stores out kind of the distance between one versus another?

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

Yes. So, I think generally, broadly we're still seeing good incrementality to your point around, it helps solve the convenience point where if you're 10, 12 minutes -- Sprouts, if you're trying to get something quickly, you might just go to another retailer 2 minutes away, but the point here is it online solves that equation. So positive from that perspective and I think the way we think about this is, it really is a valuable input to our new store selection process and our new store development program as we go to more cities and how we think about spacing between stores as e-commerce continues to grow at a pace -- natural pace that it's been growing at. And so we think it's a net-net positive. We're looking, currently at couple other channels to see, if we can add value to the customer, and we'll -- like I said earlier, likely test one or two of those in 2019.

Vincent Sinisi -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Okay. Perfect. Best of luck, guys.

Operator

Thank you. And our next question will come from the Judah Frommer with Credit Suisse. Your line is now open.

Judah Frommer -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Hi, guys. Thanks for taking the question. Maybe first, just a follow-up on what Vinny was asking. Can you help us with the new store return model and if anything has changed there. I mean clearly the stores are more expensive to open today because they have more service departments than they used to. The new store productivity remains very good. Do you still have the kind of the natural comp waterfall that you kind of came public with or has the return trajectory changed given that the store has changed as well.

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

Hey, Jude. It's Brad, I would say the new store financial return model has only improved over the last few years, because what we are seeing in the more relevance, in the departments and the meat and seafood and the merchandising mix and the improved go-to-market strategy and advertising in advance of opening up stores, particularly in new markets has resulted in much stronger average weekly sales over the gates. So clearly, that provides you with a better IRR model, what it does do though is, it mutes the year to comp growth rate, but we'll take that all day long from relevance perspective with the consumer and a financial returns model. But it does meet the year to comp rates.

Judah Frommer -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

That makes sense. And maybe just one quick one on the core customer, if that core customer has changed at all given that more and more traffic is being driven by prepared food meal solutions, deli, things like that. Is still this kind of this natural ramp in basket billed throughout the store over time or do you find that more customers are buying specifically for those departments and any more color on the expanded use of credit card would be interesting. Thanks.

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

So I think that several of the departments that historically have taken longer to ramp. We continue to see those departments ramp over time to your question around mix is, might -- we have answered sort of one department that takes a little bit longer time to ramp and we continue to see that. In terms of how customers are using the store. This is again, where I -- we feel really good about how Sprouts is positioned where a customer uses the store for many different occasions and so where our focus has been to -- have a program, which is meeting the needs of the customers, whether they just want to come in for lunch and grab a sandwich, chips and drink or come and pick up something ready to cook or ready to heat for dinner tonight, or come into the store and do a full expansive grocery shop.

And overall, what we're seeing is greater traffic to the store because of what we've been doing to the program. What we've been, how we've been enhancing the program that customers are using us in a broader way for more occasions across the store, which speaks to what Brad, just talked about in our enhanced prototype, is we're seeing greater deli mix as customers are coming in for 12 o'clock, 5 o'clock traffic, but just adding to the overall foot traffic in the store, as well as the overall basket in other departments as well. So all very positive news to the overall business.

Judah Frommer -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

And the only other concept around of the new concept store it is giving us more relatively with the millennials. So as you think of urban environments and different things that we haven't historically done, we're just resonating a lot better with the millennials with our content.

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

You also had a question around credit card expenses, this is something that the industry has been facing increasingly over the last two years in particular, as more and more card issuers are issuing premium cards, which carry with it a higher interchange rate. And notwithstanding the fact that we've been able to shield some of those otherwise larger increases with better negotiated rates, it does remain a pressure on the overall industry, as cash as a tender continues to approach zero over time. And then that puts pressure on the overall interchange expenses.

Judah Frommer -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Great. Thanks very much.

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. And our next question will come from the line of Robbie Ohmes with Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Your line is now open.

Robert Ohmes -- Bank of America Merrill Lynch -- Analyst

Hey, guys. Thanks for getting me in here. Just two real quick ones. Could you guys clarify, just on the produce deflation, how much of it is, just cost driven versus competitive driven price deflation. And then the other question I had is with Kroger and Walmart rolling out their pickup locations. Any color you can give on kind of, what happens to one of your stores in a market, where a pickup is rolled out say, across the street from a Sprouts of a Kroger or something like that. Thanks.

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

And Robbie on the deflation side and produce, it's our cost base driven.

Robert Ohmes -- Bank of America Merrill Lynch -- Analyst

As far as from a competitive set standpoint, we obviously don't talk about any one competitor action. But to-date in our numbers, we're not seeing any impact of any particular activity of any one particular competitor in any meaningful way. So to the extent that, there is any impact, it's not discernible, it's Lloyd (ph) in the system, how I would describe it.

Jim Nielsen -- President and Chief Operating Officer

Yeah. I'd also add Robbie, that we've seen really solid adoption of the delivery model that we're executing and that's really resonating with customers because, we have a footprint where there's much greater distances between stores as compared to our conventional competitors. Naturally it is significantly more accretive than a click and collect model, which would be largely cannibalizing, if you have a very tight footprint of your store network. So we're very pleased with the approach that we've taken.

Robert Ohmes -- Bank of America Merrill Lynch -- Analyst

That's great. Thanks so much, guys.

Jim Nielsen -- President and Chief Operating Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, this is all the time we have for questions today. I would now like to hand the conference back over to, Mr. Amin Maredia, Chief Executive Officer, for any closing comments or remarks.

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

Yes. Thank you. I just wanted to end by saying is, what we started at the beginning of the call, what it is that, given all the things we talked about on the call today, we really feel that Sprouts is better positioned in the marketplace today than it ever has before. Our cash-on-cash return model has continued to go up over the last several years with the enhance that we're making into the business and how they're resonating to the customer. And so as a company, Jim. Brad and I, are really excited about the future and where this business model is going and how it will add shareholder value over time. And we thank you for the time and look forward to seeing you on the road. Thanks.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your participation on today's conference. This does conclude our program. And we may all disconnect. Everybody have a wonderful day.

Duration: 71 minutes

Call participants:

Susannah Livingston -- Investor Relations

Amin Maredia -- Chief Executive Officer

Bradley Lukow -- Chief Financial Officer

Charles Grom -- Gordon Haskett Research Advisors -- Analyst

Mark Carden -- UBS -- Analyst

Jim Nielsen -- President and Chief Operating Officer

Edward Kelly -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Karen Short -- Barclays -- Analyst

Chris Mandeville -- Jefferies -- Analyst

Ken Goldman -- JPMorgan -- Analyst

Benjamin Bienvenu -- Stephens, Inc. -- Analyst

Paul Trussell -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

Vincent Sinisi -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Judah Frommer -- Credit Suisse -- Analyst

Robert Ohmes -- Bank of America Merrill Lynch -- Analyst

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