Image source: Whole Foods Market.

Investors in Whole Foods Market (WFM) have gone through a massive disruption lately, and the company that once unquestionably led the organic and natural-foods space now faces competitive threats on multiple fronts. Amid competition from mainstream grocery chains, department superstores, and new entrants to the smaller-chain natural and organic grocery niche, Whole Foods has had to up its game. Coming into Wednesday's fiscal third-quarter financial report, Whole Foods investors don't have much hope that the company will be able to produce year-over-year earnings growth, but they do wonder when the grocer's bottom line will hit rock bottom. Let's take an early look at what Whole Foods Market will tell investors and whether it can make its shareholders more optimistic about the future.

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Data source: Yahoo! Finance.

What's ahead for Whole Foods earnings?

In recent months, investors have reduced their expectations with respect to Whole Foods' earnings, cutting their fiscal third-quarter projections by roughly 10% and also making smaller downward adjustments to full-year fiscal 2016 and 2017 estimates. The stock, though, has bounced back from its worst levels of the year, climbing 7% since mid-April.

Whole Foods' fiscal second-quarter results in early May once again showed a mixed picture for the natural foods giant. The company posted a modest 1.3% rise in sales, which was only about half as fast as it managed in the previous quarter. Net income fell 10%, but falling share counts limited the damage to earnings on a per-share basis. Comparable-store sales fell 3%, which continued a downward trend for Whole Foods. Despite ongoing expansion plans, Whole Foods reduced its guidance for the full year. Yet surprisingly, shareholders didn't seem too concerned, actually bidding the stock upward after the announcement.

Still, one big question for Whole Foods is whether its new 365 store concept will be successful in starting to turn the tide back toward the natural-foods giant. The first 365 store opened just a few weeks after Whole Foods' second-quarter report, and the company believes that the stores will both allow Whole Foods to engage better with millennials and other shoppers with whom the grocer hasn't historically connected, and allow for smaller-footprint stores in areas that couldn't support a full-blown Whole Foods location. Early results from newly open 365 stores should be interesting even if they won't move the dial very much for the overall company.

Can Whole Foods bounce back?

At the same time, though, Whole Foods has had to deal with some new difficulties. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has identified the grocer's North Atlantic Kitchen food preparation and production facility as having problems ranging from the presence of Listeria bacteria to exposed items under ceiling joints, and regulators demanded further responses after visits earlier in 2016 failed to produce the fixes that the FDA wanted to see from Whole Foods.

Whole Foods has always kept its eye on the long game, and it's therefore important to look at quarter-by-quarter results in that longer context. Some pressure on comparable-store sales has come from Whole Foods' efforts to make itself more value-conscious, willingly giving up some of its profit margin in order to keep customers satisfied. The grocer hopes that a measured dose of promotions will increase traffic enough in the long run to help it start growing comps again. Confidence in the Whole Foods strategy among shareholders is a big reason the stock has seemed to stabilize lately, but even the most patient of investors will want some signs of progress on the revenue and net income fronts.

In the Whole Foods third-quarter earnings report, watch to see how the company's executive team responds to its most recent challenges and opportunities. In particular, the results of the new 365 store initiative will be crucial in plotting a future course for Whole Foods. If the company doesn't get the results investors want, the stock could give up its recent gains once again.