Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) investors haven't found much worth celebrating about their business lately. In fact, next week the coffee titan is all but certain to announce its second consecutive year of disappointing global sales growth when it closes out its fiscal 2018 year.
Starbucks' most recent results were especially weak, with revenue gains slowing to a crawl in the core U.S. segment. Comparable-store sales even fell sharply in China, the country that executives have called critical to Starbucks' wider ambitions.
These struggles make it more important for CEO Kevin Johnson and his team to show progress in their plan to get the business back on track when they issue fourth-quarter results and the outlook for the fiscal year ahead on Thursday, Nov. 1. Let's take a closer look at what investors can expect in this report.
Hitting the targets
Starbucks has landed short of management's sales projections in two of the last three quarters. The chain said in January that it had misjudged demand for holiday-themed merchandise, leading to reduced profitability. Management then had to lower its global growth projection just a few months later, thanks to surprisingly weak demand for Frappuccino drinks and a competitive surge that pinched its China business.
Overall, comparable-store sales are now expected to fall below 3% in fiscal 2018 to mark the third straight year of deceleration in this core metric. In contrast, comps ranged between 6% and 7% from 2013 through 2015.
That shaky track record means the pressure is on Johnson and his team to demonstrate that they still have a good read on the industry and on the challenges that have been dragging results lower lately. Back in August they claimed that they did, and said the business should begin recovering in response to growth initiatives like drink innovations and a new delivery platform in China. Next week investors will judge those projections based on how well the company meets its goal of speeding comps up to about a 3% pace for the fiscal fourth quarter.
The good news is that shareholders can't accuse the company of failing to respond to its challenges. Starbucks has made major changes to its product offerings, including bulking up the food menu and speeding innovation around its beverage platform. The chain also found a new delivery partner in China and shifted its expansion strategy toward underserved areas outside of large U.S. cities. There have been significant financial shifts, too, toward increased spending on direct shareholder returns like dividends and stock repurchases.
These moves could combine to spark a healthy long-term rebound for the business that supports a surging stock price. Rivals including McDonald's and Dunkin' Brands Group have enjoyed modest growth rebounds lately, after all. But any sustained recovery for the coffee titan would have to start with stabilizing traffic trends in Starbucks' core U.S. market, a metric that the company will address in Thursday's report.
Once those trends improve, any Starbucks recovery would then require the company to achieve more robust sales in the U.S. and in China. Overall, that means investors will be looking for the management team to issue an optimistic outlook for global growth in 2019 that surpasses the 2% to 3% uptick the chain has managed since 2017.