Investors are feeling cautious as we approach Coca-Cola's (NYSE:KO) third-quarter earnings report on Oct. 22. Sure, the beverage giant is likely to show a sharp sales growth rebound compared to the previous quarter that was severely impacted by COVID-19 social distancing efforts. Yet, unlike its peer PepsiCo (NASDAQ:PEP), Coke could take more than a year to return to its past expansion pace given the changes in consumer mobility.

Thursday's announcement will give shareholders a better idea about the timing of that rebound while answering key questions around earnings and cash flow.

Let's take a closer look at three things to watch for in the upcoming report.

A cooler filled with bottled and canned drinks.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Was there a sharp rebound in sales?

Investors are expecting to see a big growth rebound as declining sales moderate to about a 12% drop compared to the 28% slump Coke reported in its fiscal second quarter. CEO James Quincey and his team should have even better news to report that focuses on key markets or on the latter part of Q2. Many countries progressed back toward more normal operations during the three-month period that ended in late September, so look for Coke to highlight that progress.

The sales trends aren't going to impress when stacked up against PepsiCo, which recently returned to volume growth in its beverage segment even as its snack portfolio surged higher. Coke doesn't have the benefit of an in-demand packaged foods division, and its drink lineup is more heavily tilted toward on-the-go consumption. That's why executives see a potentially rocky road ahead as consumers around the world stay in social distancing mode.

2. What are the cash flow trends?

The good news is Coke made the best of a bad financial situation last quarter. Aggressive cost-cutting helped keep profitability steady despite the shrinking sales footprint. Still, earnings dove 32% and free cash flow was down 40% through the first half of the year.

Executives said back in July that fiscal Q2 likely represented the worst of financial strain on the business, and so shareholders should see improving earnings and cash flow trends this week. That's important because Coke needs flexibility to spend aggressively in areas like marketing, beverage innovations, and e-commerce. Pepsi and other competitors are working hard to win market share during this period of intense consumer behavior changes, and Coke can't afford to be stuck on defense for long.

3. Is there any management outlook?

Big variables around consumer demand, COVID-19 outbreaks, and economic growth may keep Coke executives from issuing a detailed 2020 outlook on Thursday. For its part, Pepsi just reinstated its forecast and sees growth landing at about 4% this year, or just slightly below 2019's banner result.

Its focus on beverages over food will extend Coke's rebound hopes further into the future. But executives might sound a more optimistic tone than they did in July when they predicted nearly two years of sluggish demand trends ahead. The biggest variable is the timing of widespread adoption of COVID-19 vaccinations, and there's still no answer to that question.

In the meantime, the consumer staples giant will have to rely on its innovation, marketing, and financial assets to find ways to grow sales even as consumer mobility remains depressed into fiscal 2021.