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BJ's Wholesale Club Holdings, Inc  (NYSE:BJ)
Q4 2018 Earnings Conference Call
March 06, 2019, 8:30 a.m. ET

Contents:

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good morning, my name is Sharon and I will be your conference operator today. At this time, I would like to welcome everyone to the BJ's Wholesale Club Fourth Quarter Fiscal 2018 Earnings Conference Call. All lines have been placed on mute to prevent any background noise. After the speakers' remarks, there will be a question-and-answer session. (Operator Instructions).

I would now like to turn the call over to Faten Freiha, Vice President, Investor Relations. You may begin your conference.

Faten Freiha -- Vice President, Investor Relations

Thank you. Good morning, everyone. We appreciate you joining BJ's Wholesale Club's fourth quarter and fiscal 2018 earnings conference call. Chris Baldwin, Chairman and CEO; Bob Eddy, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer; and Bill Werner, Senior Vice President, Strategic Planning and Investor Relations are on the call. Chris and Bob will provide you with an overview of our results, followed by a Q&A session.

Before we begin, please remember that during this call we may make forward-looking statements within the meaning of the Federal Securities laws. These statements are based on our current expectations and involve risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from our expectations described on this call and in today's press release. Please see the Risk Factors section of our prospectus filed with the SEC on February 21st, 2019, for a description of those risks and uncertainties. Finally, please note that on today's call, we will refer to certain non-GAAP financial measures that we believe will provide useful information for investors.

The presentation of this information is not intended to be considered in isolation or as a substitute for the financial information presented in accordance with GAAP. Please refer to today's press release and supplemental document posted on the investors section of our website for a reconciliation of non-GAAP financial measures to the most comparable measures prepared in accordance with GAAP.

With that, I'll turn the call over to Chris.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning and thank you for joining us. We're pleased with our fourth quarter and full year 2018 performance. We continue to make progress across our business as we transform BJ's Wholesale Club. For the fourth quarter and for the full year, we exceeded our expectations for sales, earnings and for cash flows.

In the fourth quarter, we saw merchandise comp sales of 2.9%, our sixth straight quarter of positive merchandise comps and an acceleration of our two year stack. Notably, during the quarter, we grew comp sales in every business and in every geography in our Company. For the quarter, adjusted EBITDA was $165 million, which is up 16% compared to 13 weeks last year. We continued to drive strong cash flows in the quarter supporting the reduction of our debt, well ahead of our previously communicated debt reduction schedule.

Our results show the investments we started to make as we began our transformation in 2016 and 2017 are continuing to pay-off. As an example, last year marked the first time that BJ's members were able to take advantage of our full omni-channel offering for their holiday shopping. Members could click coupons on our app, use our Buy Online Pickup in Club offering and take advantage of same-day delivery for fresh food. While we are pleased with our progress, we're much more encouraged by the opportunities ahead of us, as our transformation is still in the very early stages. Our investments are focused on building the capabilities necessary to deliver long-term growth across our strategic priorities, which are acquiring and retaining members, delivering value to get them shopping, making it more convenient to shop at BJ's Wholesale Club and expanding our strategic footprint.

First, I'll give you an update on acquiring and retaining members. We ended the year with all-time highs for paid members and record highs for renewal rates and membership fee income. We also achieved record enrollment and easy renewal and in our highest year memberships. More than half of our members are enrolled in easy renewal and over 23% are enrolled in our premium memberships. We continue to acquire members through digital channels. This is key to attracting younger families who are just discovering the club channel. For the full year, we more than doubled the number of members acquired digitally.

Our second strategic priority is to deliver value to get them shopping. I mentioned before that our current performance is the result of investments we began making several years ago. Nowhere is this more true than in our general merchandise business, where we started our assortment transformation. GM comp sales were up 5% in the quarter, a continuation of our strong third quarter performance. TV's are a good example of how our transformation is delivering results. Last year, we invested to improve the high definition TV signals in all of our clubs, allowing us to better showcase our improved assortment. As a (Technical Difficulty) sales in the quarter that were well above our expectations. We also saw a strong growth in apparel as we reallocated space to our highest sales producing categories like outerwear, kids apparel and women's active-wear.

We see room for continued growth in apparel as we continue to build our assortment capabilities and deliver an even stronger value over time. More recently, we started to revamp our kitchen assortment. For the quarter, we saw a strong growth driven by execution on Black Friday and better assortment. We still have plenty of room to grow in this category, but we are encouraged by our progress. A key foundation of our transformation is to deliver unbeatable prices and improved execution in our grocery and perishable business.

In the quarter, we delivered growth across these categories driven by strong marketing programs and a sharp focus on value during the holiday season. During the holidays, our fresh food quality and low prices make us the destination for smart saving families. We saw perishable comp sales of 2% in Q4 with growth in produce, meat and (Technical Difficulty). We also a saw solid growth in our entertaining business, which includes deli and bakery platters. This performance was also driven by investments in improved in-club execution.

Our own brands are key to delivering outstanding value and quality to our members. These products are also important to the success of our ongoing category profit improvement initiatives. We ended the quarter with 20% owned brands penetration, we see significant opportunities (Technical Difficulty) as we've developed more robust processes to build a strong pipeline of high quality products. As a result of our efforts, we've reduced our cost while maintaining strong member satisfaction. We've also adopted a sourcing approach that let's us get products to sell faster while maintaining a consistent look and feel for our members.

Our recent Wellsley Farms wine launch with items priced under $10 shows how we can source multiple products from different suppliers and countries and deliver them to our members with consistent branding and market leading value. In late Q4, we started the transformation of our services business by bringing our optical business in-house from our third party supplier. This change will dramatically improve the value, service and selection we offer our members, and we see optical as a growth driver in the future. We are actively looking at our entire services portfolio with the goal of changing and adding services that will deliver value to our members and drive growth for our Company over time.

Our next strategic priority is making it more convenient to shop at BJ's. We made significant progress across our digital properties in 2018. Over the past year, we have launched and improved our app, Buy Online Pick Up In Club, digital coupons and of course, same-day delivery. Members love these added digital features that make (Technical Difficulty) in our clubs and online. We had more than 100 million visits to our digital properties in the year. In Q4, we surpassed 1.5 million app downloads, reaching this milestone in just over one year. We also achieved a 4.7 star rating in the Apple App Store. For the year, we had well over 100 million digital coupons downloaded by our members.

Our BOPIC and same-day delivery programs, while still quite small continue to grow rapidly. BOPIC was particularly popular during the holiday season as members were able to make purchases and pick them up within a couple of hours. We also launched ship from club capabilities in Q4, which gives additional flexibility as our omni-channel business continues to grow.

Finally, we plan to expand our strategic footprint. We are set to open our new club in Clearwater, Florida in just a few weeks and we're very pleased with our membership acquisition work so far. Clearwater is an infill club for us, club like this play an important role in attracting both new and lapsed members. We've improved our ability to target previous members who respond well as we highlight the transformed BJs Wholesale Club. We're also making progress in Eastern Michigan. They are on track to open two clubs there later this year. We see this region as a great fit for us given that our target is the smart saving family and we continue to actively look for additional growth opportunities in this region. Our gas stations are key to delivering value to members. We opened two gas stations in the fourth quarter and by the end of the new fiscal year, we expect to have gas stations in about two-thirds of our clubs.

Overall, our real estate pipeline is stronger than it has been in years and we are on track to open four to five clubs and eight to 10 gas stations in fiscal year 2019. Looking ahead to fiscal year 2019, we expect another strong year. Bob will have more details on our outlook. This year, we will continue to invest in advanced analytics to improve member acquisition and we expect to launch point of sale technology that will drive co-brand credit card sign ups. We will also invest in our personalization, assortment and pricing capability that will continue to drive our growth and we'll continue to improve the convenient services we launched over the past year.

With that, I'll turn the call over to Bob, who will review our results and outlook for the year in more detail. Bob?

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

Thanks, Chris. Good morning, everyone. As Chris noted, our strong fourth quarter performance demonstrates successful execution against our strategic priorities and continued momentum in our business. We remain focused on continuing the Company's transformation and on driving gains in sales, membership, profitability and cash flows. Let's turn to our results for the quarter.

Net sales increased by 2.8% to $3.3 billion when compared to the appropriate 13-week period last year. Recall that last year's fourth quarter had an additional week, which represented approximately $240 million in sales. Comp sales increased by 2.8% including one-tenth of a percent impact from deflation in the gasoline business. Merchandise comp sales, which exclude gasoline sales, increased by 2.9% representing a two-year stacked comp of more than 4%. These great results were driven primarily by increases in traffic.

Our results were supported by strong holiday performance and our momentum continued into January. Although we benefited from the early release of government assistance in January, that benefit was offset earlier in the quarter as we lapped last year's government assistance in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

As in every quarter, there were other additional small puts and takes. However, when combined, they had no material impact on our merchandise comp for the quarter. Therefore, we believe that the 2.9% merchandise comp reflected the underlying trend of the business within the fourth quarter. We improved merchandise comps across all four divisions. Our general merchandise division led our merchandise comp sales gains with a 5% comp during the quarter. Some of the key drivers of our success were our TV, apparel and houseware categories. The two-year stacked comp for our GM business was 3% as we lapped changes in housewares and small appliances. We reconfigured our assortment in these two categories to make them more relevant to our members and both showed improved performance in this quarter. We look for continued improvement in the future.

For the remaining three divisions, perishables, edible grocery and non-edible grocery, the two-year stacked comps outpaced fourth quarter comps, underscoring the growing momentum in our business. Our perishable comp sales were 2% for the quarter improving sequentially from the third quarter and representing a stacked comp of more than 4%. Key drivers of growth includes strong performances in bakery, fresh meat and produce categories. We saw a small impact from deflation in this division and unit growth was up broadly in these categories. We remain focused on executing and improving this business to drive unmatched quality and pricing.

Comp sales of our edible grocery division increased by 3% during the quarter driven by growth in salty snacks, water and specialty beverages and represented a 4% stacked comp. We are encouraged by the continued improvement in this division, which are supported by strong holiday and Super Bowl marketing and merchandising activity. Comp sales of our non-edible grocery division increased by 2% during the quarter driven primarily by improved assortment, particularly in our HBA categories and represented a 4% stacked comp. Membership fee income grew by 11% during the fourth quarter. Approximately two-thirds of the growth was driven by our membership fee increase and one-third by member growth. The continued growth in our membership fee income underscores the fact that our value proposition continues to be relevant to consumers.

As Chris mentioned, we achieved an all-time high for paid members of $5.5 million and record renewal rate of 87%. As you know, we projected to lose a little bit of renewal rate due to the fee increase that we implemented at the beginning of the year. Through strong execution, we've been able to offset that impact and grow to our fourth consecutive all-time high in this important measure of the health of our business. These results were driven by relentlessly communicating our value to members, successfully moving more members into our higher membership tiers, which now represent more than 23% of our membership base and executing on our easy renewal program. As of the end of the quarter, more than half of our members were enrolled in that program. Importantly, we also remain focused on improving in-club execution, particularly at our membership desks.

Gross margin rate increased by approximately 70 basis points over last year's fourth quarter. The cost of gasoline decreased during the quarter, driving gross margin rate in that business. Excluding gas, our merchandise gross margin rate increased by approximately 10 basis points over last year, driven by benefits from our procurement initiatives, partially offset by sales mix. The fourth quarter included increased sales in categories with structurally lower margins like televisions.

SG&A expenses were $517 million in the fourth quarter compared to $528 million last year. Excluding severance costs associated with our 2017 voluntary retirement program, management fees paid to our sponsors and expenses associated with last year's 53rd week, SG&A expenses increased by approximately $20 million. This increase reflects investments in capabilities and talent to continue to drive our results. Operating income as a percentage of total revenue was 3.2%, reflecting a year-over-year increase of 30 basis points after adjusting the prior year period for $11 million in severance costs and management fees mentioned earlier.

Interest expense decreased to $27 million from $47 million in last year's fourth quarter, primarily driven by our dramatic delevering and the benefit of repricing our first lien term loan and ABL facilities in the third quarter. Please note that last year's fourth quarter included $15 million of interest expense from our second lien term loan prior to its extinguishment. We recorded income tax expense of $19 million during the quarter compared to a tax benefit of $22 million in the prior year. The benefit in the prior year period was primarily due to the remeasurement of net deferred tax liabilities resulting from the recent tax reform legislation. The variance between our normalized tax rate of 27% and the reported rate of approximately 23% for this quarter was driven primarily by $2.7 million of windfall tax benefit from stock options exercise.

Adjusted net income was $62 million in the fourth quarter of $0.44 per share compared to $51 million or $0.36 per share in the prior year period. Excluding the additional week in the prior period, adjusted net income grew by 42%, reflecting our strong execution and interest expense savings. Our press release includes a table that reconciles GAAP net income to adjusted net income, including on a per share basis. We are very proud of our continued significant increase in profitability over the past 12 consecutive quarters. Our adjusted EBITDA was a record $165 million in the fourth quarter, reflecting 16% growth when compared to a 13-week prior year period. The growth in our adjusted EBITDA was driven by our continued execution in our clubs and enhanced profitability in our gasoline business.

Moving now to the balance sheet, our AP to inventory ratio, which measures how much of our inventory is sold before we pay for it, improved to 78% versus 74% in the prior year. We remain disciplined in our inventory investments and well positioned for fiscal 2019.

Let's turn briefly to our results for the year, which were ahead of our most recent guidance across key metrics. Merchandise comps exceeded our expectations at 2.2% for the full year, adjusted EBITDA at $578 million and adjusted net income at $186 million or $1.33 per share were above the high-end of our range. We also had very strong free cash flow, which we define as operating cash flow less CapEx of $281 million versus $73 million last year. Recall that the prior year included a one-time cash outflow of approximately $78 million related to our February 2017 recapitalization. Therefore, a more appropriate comparative prior year amount is $151 million.

The strength in this year's cash flow is driven by our improved profitability and strong working capital management. We've used that great free cash flow performance to accelerate our ability to pay down debt and as a result, our funded net debt to adjusted EBITDA ratio at the end of the year was 3.1 times. We expect to be under three times by the middle of fiscal 2019, approximately six months earlier than our original plans. Once we reach that point, we'll begin to think about alternative uses for our excess cash flows.

Let's now turn to our outlook for fiscal 2019. We've laid out our guidance in our earnings release and I would point you to the table for details. Our outlook reflects our confidence in the underlying strength of our business and the benefits from continued investments in our strategic priorities. We expect net sales to be between $12.9 billion and $13.2 billion with merchandise comp sales excluding gasoline of 1.5% to 2.5%. Importantly, the midpoint of our merchandise comp guidance represents continued acceleration of our two-year stack to over 4%. Last year's two-year stack was 1.3%.

From a membership standpoint, we expect to continue to attract new members and maintain our high renewal rate. Keep in mind that membership fee income for fiscal 2019, especially toward the second half of the year will not have a significant benefit from the fee increased (ph) in January 2018. Adjusted net income is expected to be $200 million to $212 million or $1.42 to $1.50 per share for the fiscal year. We expect our fully diluted share count to be 141 million shares for the year. Full year adjusted EBITDA is expected to be in the range of $590 million to $600 million, implying another record year.

Excluding the impact of unusual income from gasoline in 2018, we expect our adjusted EBITDA growth in 2019 to be in line with our long-term guidance. Implicit in this profitability guidance are continuing investments in marketing and membership priorities. We expect these investments to be funded by continued progress in our CPI initiative and increased private label penetration. As we've shared with you in the past, we've taken a more comprehensive approach to drive savings and improve our assortment. The baby assortment change that we've previously talked about is a good example. These important efforts will continue to allow us to invest in our growth.

As you know, the new accounting standard for leases will be adopted in the coming year. Very important to understand that while the accounting for leases will change, there is no economic effect from this change as the cash rent stream remains the same. While we are still finalizing the details of our adoption, our guidance for the full year reflects our estimates for the impact of lease accounting standard. We expect to record assets and liabilities as a result of this change of approximately $2 billion. Importantly, we do not expect any material impact to our earnings.

Our full year interest expense guidance of $105 million to $110 million reflects our recent debt repricing and efforts to fix the rate on a portion of our debt. As a reminder, early in the fourth quarter, we entered into a series of interest rate swaps that fixed the LIBOR component of $1.2 billion or about two-thirds of our debt at a rate of 3%. We believe we are well positioned to manage future interest rate risk. Our capital spending is expected to meaningfully increase as we accelerate the opening of new clubs and gas stations.

As Chris mentioned earlier, we (Technical Difficulty) five new clubs and eight to 10 gasoline stations during the year. We've elected to purchase land for certain new clubs, which drives higher initial capital cost compared to a typical leased club. It's important to note that we will likely consider entering into sale leaseback transactions on any new owned clubs, thereby enabling us to increase expansion while continuing to de-lever. We expect to invest approximately $200 million during 2019, prior to consideration of any sale leaseback proceeds. In closing, I'm proud of our results for fiscal 2018. We've seen encouraging membership trends and substantial increases in sales, profitability and cash flows, enabling us to continue to invest for future growth. We look forward to delivering on our goals for fiscal 2019.

And now I'll turn the call back over to the operator to begin the Q&A session. Sharon?

Questions and Answers:

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Your first question comes from Robby Ohmes with Bank of America. Your line is open.

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

Well, hi, guys. Can you hear me OK?

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes, we can.

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

So, great, hey, great quarter guys. Actually I'm just -- I'm going to ask, I'm going to start just on asking you about gas. Two questions on the gas stations. Can you tell us what kind of lift you get when you add a gas station to an existing club and what it does to the same-store sales and the expectation on the -- the outlook for the comp curve. And the other question related to gas would just be, can you walk us through the gas contribution to EBITDA for this fiscal year. And then in the guidance, what you're thinking gas is going to be doing for you guys for the fiscal year you are in now.

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

Yes, thanks for the question Robby. Good to talk to you. So as we add gas stations, the most important thing it does for us is impact our renewal rate within that club. As you know, gas is an incredible way to illustrate value to our members. It's probably the most known commodity out there in terms of price because there is a sign on every street corner out there and we will try and put a gas station wherever we can whether on all of our existing sites or very close nearby because we know it does drive improvement in renewal rates. So, we don't think about it as directly driving comp, meaning it's not a light switch when you open a gas station that the sales in the box go up. We do see that happen in very high priced environments. So think above $3, you will definitely see an impact of opening a gas station, in these, on the pricing environment, we have today, you would see a more muted impact to comps, but certainly over the lifetime of a member and over the lifetime of the club it is accretive to do so.

As you think about the gas contribution to EBITDA this year, certainly Q4 was a strong gas margin quarter owing to the slide in costs and as you know, as gas costs go down, the profitability of the business goes up and then the inverse is true on the other side of the curve. So we certainly saw that during the quarter. When we think about the contribution of that versus the rest of our business, what's the back out (ph), we certainly still think some of beat was driven by the core business and some of it certainly by the gas business as well. As we think about next year, Robby, we're thinking gas goes back to normal, if you will. We always try and project a normal year without a considerable disruption and so the gasoline income for the year is embedded in the guidance that we put forward, but it would be more of a normalized profile for gas business.

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

And so Bob, just to clarify, so the guidance you gave us would assume gas power (ph) contribution, EBITDA contribution to potentially be down from what you reported this year.

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

That's correct, yes.

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

Great, that's really helpful. Thanks so much guys.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Robby, I want to add one short point, as we think about the gas markets, obviously, the fourth quarter of this year was a little bit unusual, but one of the things we feel really good about is the fact that we continue to grow share in gasoline, which is a really fundamental part of our value proposition for our members.

Operator

Next question comes...

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

Thanks so much. Congrats on the great quarter.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Robby.

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Next question comes from Edward Kelly with Wells Fargo. Your line is open.

Edward Kelly -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Hi, guys, good morning. Couple of questions for you. First on the comps, could you provide a bit more color around the stack benefit and I guess sort of like what you're talking about with the offset of Irma last year and then do we assume that means that the February comp so far is kind of generally in line with guidance. Just some help there would be good.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. Hi, Ed, this is Chris. Thanks for your question. One of things we spoke to you about last summer was the fact that the Irma -- post Irma, the government issued food for Florida credits to all residents of Florida that helped our comps in the year ago period. So as we started, that's one of the things we were a little bit cautious about as we started the quarter and as you look in -- on the total quarter Ed, SNAP overall was actually a slight drag on our performance. So Bob made some comments about 290 (ph) and about what we delivered on a run rate for the fourth quarter overall. So weakness in the beginning part strengthened the back a little bit of a negative overall. And as we think about the obvious positive in the month of January, it will certainly impact the first quarter, but we think we'll be in line with our annual guidance, so we feel OK about that.

Edward Kelly -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

And then just remind us, I think, you have had some unfavorable weather in Q1 last year. Is that right?

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

This is when we talk about all the time and yes, the first quarter is always one having been in businesses -- in this business and in businesses like this for over 30 years, the first quarter is always a little bit unusual because weather variability can be high, tax benefits can change year-to-year and the timing of Easter also plays a role, but the weather last year was a little bit unfavorable and it really created a soft start to our GM performance in the quarter because it was cold and rainy. Other than that, that's what I'll give you some texture -- the texture will have for you on the first quarter.

Edward Kelly -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Okay and just one last one for you, on the gross margin, in the merch margin, progress stalled a bit this quarter and was lighter I think than probably -- maybe what I think probably what you expected for the quarter and lighter than what the market was looking for, but there (ph) was some mix factor. So can you parse out what you think the mix impact was? How was underlying performance and then how do we think about the merch margin in 2019?

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

Yes, Ed, I'll take that one. Certainly our merch margin performance was slightly below the implied guidance that we gave for the quarter. We guided to about 20 basis points and we were approximately 10 basis points. Just to put that in sort of dollar context, that's about $3 million. So certainly not the biggest amount in the world. We guided lower than the run rate in the front part of the year specifically because we know the timing of the waves of CPI benefits coming in. So Q3 I think was 60 basis points if I remember correctly and we were guiding to 20 (ph) because we knew that there were smaller waves coming in (Technical Difficulty).

Importantly, and first and foremost, we expect the CPI benefits to continue and be somewhat comparable to our success in the past year. We have a number of waves coming in that have already been identified and certainly we're still working on it. We've talked a little bit about over time, the changing complexion of the CPI program where it's gone from more hard-nosed negotiations to a more comprehensive assortment based review process. But overall, I think the key message there is that process is still healthy and vibrant and we expect it to yield tremendous benefits as we go forward.

Within the fourth quarter, there were a couple of offsets and Chris talked in his remarks and I talked a little bit about the same thing about the tremendous amount of business we did in our TV segment. That category has structurally lower margin rates and they are even lower in the fourth quarter than they are for the full year given the promotional nature of that business. So you know certainly, easy to understand as we saw more of those types of categories, it's a little bit of a headwind from a mix perspective. We are very, very happy to take that business all day long. Much like gasoline, it's an important value proposition point to our members where they can save a couple of hundred dollars on a television and really tell their friends about it. It's an important validation of the value they get for paying $55 (ph) or $110 a year to be a member.

The other thing I would point you toward is tariffs. We had a tiny bit of pressure within the quarter from that. Coincidentally, it was right around $2 million or $3 million or the gap between our guidance and what we saw. We don't expect that to be a big headwind going forward given we don't source a lot from China and we started to revamp our supply chain a little bit there. Hopefully, we'll actually get a favorable trade deal that will happen, but all those things together really drove the slight underperformance in margin rate. We don't think that's a continuing trend. We do believe our margin rates will continue to go up and that will serve as a fuel for growth.

Edward Kelly -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Thanks guys.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Ed.

Operator

Thanks. The next question comes from Chuck Grom with Gordon Haskett. Your line is open.

Chuck Grom -- Gordon Haskett -- Analyst

Good morning, guys. Nice quarter. Just a follow up on that question. Just looking ahead to '19, can you help us think about what you're expecting for both gross margins and SG&A within that adjusted EBITDA guidance? And then within the gross, any color on the quarter would be helpful?

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes, hi, Chuck. So we're not specifically guiding to either gross margin rate or SG&A, but I think what I would tell you is, we would expect margins to continue to grow. We would expect them to grow slightly less than what we saw in this particular fiscal year for the full year and we'll continue to use some of those gains in margin to invest in the business. We'll be disciplined in those investments, we'll be balanced. We are (Technical Difficulty) the long-term. So certainly we spent a lot of time making sure that we get our money's worth and as you think about the things we will invest in, you know, we've talked about many of them in previous calls, the biggest ones are around membership and personalization.

So how do we acquire new members, how do we get members to renew more and more. Those are the two most important things that we think about all the time. We're making great strides from a personalization perspective. So think back to 18 months ago or so, everybody in the -- every member in the Company got the same promotions whether they were rich or poor or lived in the North and South or came to see us a lot or a little. Now we are actively personalizing each member's promotion based on their actual purchases and more often than not what they aren't buying as much as what they are buying. The investments there is really building the data capability, the personnel associated with that, but that has the potential to be very, very helpful to our business. We're spending a lot of time on that. And then new for this year actually is we're testing investments in our operations capability. So you've heard us talk about -- a lot about trying to improve the operations within our clubs specific to our membership desks and then the more recent past within our perishables business. Our operations leadership team is really striving to get our club operations all over the building to a world-class level and some of that requires investment. We do expect it to drive sales and so we will invest in that as well this year. So we do expect margin growth, slightly less than what we saw in this particular year and we'll take a pile of that and invest it to SG&A and drop the rest to the bottom line.

Chuck Grom -- Gordon Haskett -- Analyst

Okay, great. It makes a lot of sense. And then just my follow-up would be on the comp guidance, the 2% at the midpoint. Can you hold your hands a little bit on the curvature throughout the year, anything by category you want to shed some light on it and I guess embedded in that within the perishable category, any expectations for inflation or deflation, how you're thinking about that? And then finally, there's just a lot of color over the past couple of days about the cadence of February's comp and I'm just curious, if you've guys start -- how you guys have started off the year? Thanks a lot.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Chuck, overall, let me make a couple of comments and I'll make a couple comments on your previous question as well. Overall, we're going to stick with our guidance for the full year. I made a comment in response to Ed's question about the first quarter, certainly seeing an impact from the SNAP's shift and it's a straight up shift as others have probably told you, but we feel like we're going to be in the range. Overall, the big things as we go forward are continued acceleration in our progress that we've talked to you about and those sources of investments we believe will help us get a -- what was a 1.3% (ph) stack this year up to a 4% (ph) stack next year, but we feel quite good about that.

One thing that strategically I think is really important to consider and it certainly was the case in the fourth quarter and into next year as we will continue to spend into the beats. It was obvious very early in the fourth quarter that we had a really strong cadence of progress going and whether it is our continued investments in our teammates in the field on our operations organization or continued investments in marketing to continue to drive sales, we'll continue to spend into beats as we see them. So overall, we feel good about the full year guidance. I would think about the first quarter as within the guidance but probably a little bit lower given the SNAP shift and we'll move forward from there.

Chuck Grom -- Gordon Haskett -- Analyst

That's all. Good luck.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Chuck.

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

Thanks, Chuck.

Operator

Next question comes from Simeon Siegel with Nomura Instinet. Your line is open.

Steve McManus -- Nomura Instinet -- Analyst

Good morning, guys. Steve McManus on for Simeon. Thanks for taking our questions. Could you guys give us an update on what you guys saw with respect to freight during the quarter. I think you called that out as a pressure point last quarter and maybe expectations for the upcoming year?

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, Steve, thank you. We did not see significant pressure from freight in the fourth quarter nor do we expect significant pressure. There's always going to be a little bit here and there, but as we go into next year, we manage the cost across our entire fleet, which we have that's relatively speaking, a captive one with a very important supplier to us. Our ability to work with them is extremely high. One of the things I submit to you for consideration is as somebody who has been in the logistics business for a long time, club freight is really clean. The fact that we are shipping full pallets in full trucks all the time is very good freight for our suppliers and our ability to run our logistics operation as effectively as we do makes that trade even better. So while the world is challenging for everybody, we think we have that one managed pretty well.

Steve McManus -- Nomura Instinet -- Analyst

And if I could squeeze a quick follow-up. With new club openings picking up this year, how should we think about the quarterly cadence I guess moving throughout the year?

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

So you heard four to five new clubs, Clearwater will open in April and the rest really is in Q4. So Michigan will be sort of the November time frame, which is two buildings and then that the fourth and potentially fifth clubs will also be probably December or January.

Steve McManus -- Nomura Instinet -- Analyst

Great, thanks guys. Appreciate it.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. Thank you.

Operator

Next question comes from Christopher Horvers with J.P. Morgan. Your line is open.

Christopher Horvers -- J.P. Morgan -- Analyst

Thanks. Good morning, guys. So a question, follow-up question about the gas, earnings is up about 8% at the midpoint. Can you talk about how much a normalized gas profit creates from an earnings growth perspective and are there any quarters where you would expect the headwind to be larger obviously in the fourth quarter and then related to that, given gas prices are I think still down year-over-year, do you expect a benefit in the first quarter?

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

Yes, I'll take them in reverse order. I think the first quarter is going to be pretty flat, right. I don't -- (Technical Difficulty) big dislocation coming, you kind of never know what the market is going to do, but the way our business is running today, it's more or less normal. The cadence throughout the year, certainly Q4 will be difficult to lap from a gas income perspective. We saw a little bit of benefit in the last month of the third quarter and then the vast majority of the benefit in the fourth quarter. The rest of the year, other than the fourth quarter is more or less pretty balanced. The way that we've been thinking about gas's contribution to this fiscal year's beat is more what I said in my prepared remarks around how to consider the EBITDA growth rate.

So we've told you in the past, we would consider 5% to 7% EBITDA growth rate to be appropriate for us. Certainly, if you build 578 (ph) to the midpoint of our guidance $595 million (ph), it will be somewhat less than that. We think that sort of "unusual" gasoline income in Q4 makes up the difference between that growth rate and the long-term guidance. And that's kind of how we've been thinking about it. So certainly a great year from a gas business perspective, the big dislocation in Q4, but also a lot of progress throughout the year by our gasoline team on how they run the business, how they look at where our members come from to buy gas, how we can price more effectively to not only drive gallons as Chris talked about, we're taking share in gas, but also drive improved profitability from that perspective as well, which we then turn around and invest back in the business. So overall gas had a great year. We expect a more normalized year next year (Technical Difficulty) the toughest one to lap.

Christopher Horvers -- J.P. Morgan -- Analyst

Got it. And then in terms of the membership acquisition and retention. Can you talk about what you've seen in terms of the sort of the underlying ex-MFI increase growth rate and membership fee income over the past year or so you started really prospecting harder in the back half of '17. Are you seeing progress, are you seeing that accelerate and then underneath the guide in 2019 ex-MFI, how are you planning out the growth in income on an organic basis?

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

Yes, certainly the team here has tried a lot of different things as we try and brace the concept of investing into the lifetime value of an average member. We still believe that there is a return, but some of the things that we did in the past year didn't work. We're trying a whole lot of things as we try and renovate that in the area of our business and some things worked nicely and others didn't.

And so, as we go forward, obviously, the plan will be do more of the things that did and do less of the things that didn't and place the things that didn't with a bunch of new ideas. And so we saw low-single digit member growth during the year, getting to that all-time high of 5.5 million paid members. So we're excited to get over that hurdle. We would consider that to be a win. The thing I would ask you to consider there is we're lapping the -- excuse me, lapping the Sam's numbers that we got as they closed their buildings. So the Hill is a little higher to get to that same level of new member growth, in this -- this new year, but we do believe we are well positioned to continue to grow members. We do believe we're well positioned to continue to grow our renewal rate, which is just as good or perhaps better than an average new member and we have a lot of ideas to go do it. You want to add anything to that Chris?

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

No, I think that's a good characterization of where we are.

Christopher Horvers -- J.P. Morgan -- Analyst

Excellent, thanks guys.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Chris.

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

Thanks, Chris.

Operator

Your next question comes from Peter Benedict with Baird. Your line is open.

Peter Benedict -- Robert W. Baird & Co. -- Analyst

Hey, guys. Question on the co-branded credit card members, can you remind us kind of how those folks behave maybe relative to your typical member and what -- can you share any targets in terms of where you think you can get that, either this year or over the next couple of years?

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Hey, Peter. Thanks for your question. The big deal for us and why we speak about those premium memberships overall and specifically credit card memberships are the much higher renewal rate. Think about it as 95% plus and you know what our averages are 87%. So every time we can push more members in the credit card and as you think about this, this is one thing as a company, you don't hear us say, we're proud of a lot of things but this credit card offer got launched about four years ago and we will continue to innovate into it and the team has made amazing progress since relaunch, but we have a lot of room to grow. You know, we have competitors with a higher percentage of their members and their premium tiers and that's what we're going for.

The innovation that we have in line for this year is about activating point of sale systems capability that we've been working on for well over a year that essentially pre-qualifies the entire membership base. So people will be able to upgrade to a credit card member at the point of sale and it's an important point that we continue to grow and acquisition in this part of the space since 2014 has actually accelerated. And I mention 2014 because that's when we launched the credit card program in real terms.

Peter Benedict -- Robert W. Baird & Co. -- Analyst

That's helpful. Chris. Thanks. And then just one follow-up. Just on the ancillary business opportunity, you alluded to it in your remarks, you kind of mentioned optical as an area where you're pleased. Can you give us any more color in terms of where you see the biggest opportunity within ancillary and maybe a timeline for when we should start to see some paybacks on that?

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. Good question. One of the things I've tried to be consistent on since we started speaking to you over the last year is the fact that the foundation of our turnaround is grounded in creating a better experience for our members and we've made a lot of progress in that regard across a variety of dimensions and I must tell you that the one thing that I have had to be patient on is the services portfolio, which I believe is an opportunity for substantial improvement.

Over the last year, we put the right talent in place to lead that work. Lee Delaney and his team have done a really terrific job of getting the right talent in place and I would submit to you that the optical transition is the beginning of a series of steps we'll take to improve that business, but there is opportunities in every part of it from optical to travel to cellphones to other services that we're not in a position to activate yet, but things we're very aggressively working on behind the scenes.

Peter Benedict -- Robert W. Baird & Co. -- Analyst

Okay, great. Thanks so much.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Peter.

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

Thanks, Peter.

Operator

Next question comes from Chuck Cerankosky with Northcoast Research. Your line is open. Your next question comes from Laura Champine with Loop Capital, your line is open.

Laura Champine -- Loop Capital -- Analyst

Thanks. Question about the warehouse club growth that you've got planned. You've already announced opening in Michigan. Can you talk more generally about your views on your footprint expansion and what do you expect to do outside of the Northeast as opposed to filling in existing markets?

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Sure. Thanks for your question, Laura. I made comments in my prepared remarks about the Company's real estate portfolio is in better shape today than it was -- has been in quite a while. Our plans this year are a good reflection of how we think about expansion overall. In a couple of weeks, we'll open in Clearwater and we're thrilled with our progress there. New member acquisition work is ahead of expectations and in that case, the unlock there Laura has been about tapping into past members and our ability to do that more effectively today than we were able to do it a few years ago has helped us think differently about infill clubs.

In terms of new markets, we have a couple of going into Michigan in the fourth quarter. We're continuing to look at other opportunities in that market and in other markets like it, but we'll think about the new markets probably one new market at a time per year versus going into two or three new markets all in the same year. In that case, the challenge is creating a brand position that makes sense to the members in that market.

The capability that Lee has and Brian Poulliot have built their teams to do consumer work about how we can be different when we enter a market has been very, very compelling and it not only helps our new market entry, frankly, it helps us think differently about our core proposition in our core markets. So as we look at this going forward, we'll have a balance of both. We're excited about Michigan this year and we'll continue to look at both infill and new market entries during the course of the coming year.

Laura Champine -- Loop Capital -- Analyst

Thank you.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you.

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

Thanks, Laura.

Operator

Next question comes from Karen Short with Barclays. Your line is open. Karen, your line is open. Your next question comes from Mike Baker with Deutsche Bank. Your line is open.

Michael Baker -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

Hi, thanks. I just wanted to follow-up on a comment made earlier about seeing a benefit to membership growth from Sam's Clubs. Any way you can quantify that and then I guess related to that, do you think you saw a comp benefit at all from those closures and if so, can you help us frame that? Thanks.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Yes, like, we are going to be consistent with what we've done when we've been asked that question in the past that we're not to get into the specifics, but we certainly saw a member benefit and a comp benefit in the quarter -- in the year, pardon me and the important note that I think that needs to be discussed is the fact that those members will continue to grow and develop with us over time and that takes a little while to mature them and teach them about our business versus our competitor who is closed. The important point is, we feel great about our ability to continue to retain and develop those members and that contributes to the accelerate exact (ph) performance that you've seen from our Company.

Michael Baker -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

Okay, understood. Two more quick ones on the comps. One, typically when Easter is late as it is this year, does that -- I presume that helps your comps and is that embedded in your guidance? And then the next one, a little bit for fun, but also some seriousness, Red Sox win the World Series right at the end of the third quarter, did that help to be in the fourth quarter at all. And then similarly, the Patriots winning right at the beginning of the first quarter, any help there?

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

I am not letting Bob answer the second question. So I'm going to answer that one. Look, the reality is that the Patriots win so often that it's in the base and it's hard for us as a New Yorker to actually admit that out loud, but it's true. (Multiple Speakers) last year, we actually had two end market teams in the Super Bowl, which was a big deal. This year, it was only one. And so the reality is that candidly, the way baseball has been scheduled from a TV perspective, it's less of a family gathering than it ever used to because the darn games don't end till 11 o'clock at night and they are not -- rarely on the weekends, but they're not as weekend-oriented as football is.

So as you think about guiding for the full year for next year, the Easter flip timing changes between month, but it really doesn't have any change to the full year and that's what we're guiding to. So I think the big deal this year as last year's start to the spring was cold and wet. So you had this delay in the start of all of the GM categories that you know are a big part -- they get triggered on the first couple of warm weekends of the spring, Mike, whether it's garden, lawn, furniture. So we feel like we've characterized well the think -- the way to think about the first quarter in the context of Easter timing.

Michael Baker -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

Understood, I appreciate the color. Thank you.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Next question comes from Karen Short with Barclays. Your line is open.

Sean Kras -- Barclays -- Analyst

Hi guys, this is Sean on for Karen. Sorry about that before. Wanted to ask about your thoughts on the guidance and really the cadence of guidance for EBITDA growth this year. You mentioned that obviously, there's going to be an impact from SNAP in the first quarter and you just mentioned some weather impacts and obviously thinking about fourth quarter's (ph) obviously, difficult dual comparison, but just how should we be thinking about the cadence of EBITDA growth this year?

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

Hey Sean, certainly from both a sales and EBITDA perspective, I think the quarters are pretty balanced. The one call out on the sales side is SNAP EBT benefits, which we've talked about and then the one call out on EBITDA is -- lapping the gas benefit in Q4 of the year. So first three quarters I think are relatively even and subject to some seasonality, but growth relatively even and Q4 has the gas barrier. So you kind of you never know what the gas business is going to do. So as I said earlier, we tend to model a normal year every year and not every year is a normal year but outside of that, there really aren't any significant bumps that we should be thinking about.

Sean Kras -- Barclays -- Analyst

Okay, that's helpful. And just any follow-up on memberships. Can you give us a sense of how many were given away in October and the retention rate for those memberships are given away. So I think were about four months and or so and I believe, like three months was (ph) free?

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

So Sean, we don't give away memberships. Certainly, we employ a variety of tactics to get new members, one of which is a three-month trial membership that usually results in a paid membership at the end of it hopefully. You may be referencing the open house that we ran in third quarter and the beginning part of the fourth quarter that it was a few day event, a two-week event. Hopefully, we converted those numbers as well. The thing that I would point you to with respect to membership fee income is our fourth consecutive year of record renewal rates all the way up to 87%, record MFI dollars as we sit here today, record premium tiers, record number of paid members, you get the point. The membership is going in the right direction and that is an integral component to the economic model in the club business and we see it providing strength as we go forward.

Sean Kras -- Barclays -- Analyst

All right, thank you.

Operator

And your last question comes from Simeon Gutman with Morgan Stanley. Your line is open.

Simeon Gutman -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Thanks, good morning. My first question, just thinking about the growth or the complexion of growth. You mentioned that you're going to take some of the CPI and reinvest it. Is that a change and if so, why is that a change in -- let the SG&A leverage drive more of the margin? And do you think it's appropriately captured, you know to the extent you get a quick payback on those reinvestments. Do you think it's captured in the 1.5% to 2.5% comp guide?

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Simeon, overall, one of the things, first of all, thank you for your question. So there are a couple of kind of macro principles that we've tried to communicate very effectively, very consistently, pardon me, across the time we've been speaking to you. CPI has been a capability that is foundational to our ability to create fuel for growth. And over time our approach last (Technical Difficulty) in this coming year is no change versus where we've talked about. You may recall that we have said, we say plus or minus $300 million over the course of the first couple of years and we invested about (Technical Difficulty) you probably recall some of those comments, very similar approach as we approach this year.

The other thing is we're going to continue to build the strength and the foundational durability of our Company by investing into beats which we certainly did in the fourth quarter and we'll continue that into next year. So, Bob, do you have any further texture on that subject?

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

No, I think that covers it.

Simeon Gutman -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Okay. Okay. My quick follow-up, just looking back at again those comments about similar level of margin. If we look at the incremental margin that's implied, we tried to take the midpoint of -- I guess an EBIT number, it looks like it's a little bit better while making adjustments than 2018. In 2018, the comp was roughly the same like 2.2% (ph), I think, if we take the midpoint it's 2% (ph). So it actually looks a little better. I don't know, if that's, there is more noise in it, if it's gasoline compare or if I guess, Bob you said, it was intended to look similar, but it's coming out a little bit better. Is that fair?

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

I think you'd have to run me through the math that you're doing to really answer the question, but I think our stance really hasn't changed, right. Chris talked about taking a pile of CPI and private label gains and investing those. We will do that exact thing next year. I talked a little bit earlier about investing in some things from a short-term perspective and some things from a long-term perspective and we will continue to do that and so certainly, we would expect the P&L next year to look a little bit like that, right, continued margin growth and continued pressure from an SG&A perspective, but that's kind of what we're doing here, right. We're turning a company around. We've had spectacular success over the last couple of years in doing so. We've got a tremendous amount of opportunity going forward. That opportunity takes some spending to go get and we will continue to do that in a balanced way so that we can do the right things for our members and for our shareholders.

Simeon Gutman -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

Great, thanks.

Operator

And at this time, I will turn the call over to the presenters.

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you all very much and we look forward to seeing you on the road. Have a great day.

Operator

This concludes today's conference call. You may now disconnect.

Duration: 63 minutes

Call participants:

Faten Freiha -- Vice President, Investor Relations

Christopher J. Baldwin -- Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer

Robert W. Eddy -- Executive Vice President, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer

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

Edward Kelly -- Wells Fargo -- Analyst

Chuck Grom -- Gordon Haskett -- Analyst

Steve McManus -- Nomura Instinet -- Analyst

Christopher Horvers -- J.P. Morgan -- Analyst

Peter Benedict -- Robert W. Baird & Co. -- Analyst

Laura Champine -- Loop Capital -- Analyst

Michael Baker -- Deutsche Bank -- Analyst

Sean Kras -- Barclays -- Analyst

Simeon Gutman -- Morgan Stanley -- Analyst

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