PepsiCo (PEP -2.59%) stock has been trailing the market by a wide margin so far in 2021, but that gap could start shrinking soon. The consumer staples giant will announce third-quarter earnings results in just a few days, in a report that should contain good news around growth, profit margins, and cash returns.

Let's dig into a few key metrics to watch in the announcement, slated for Tuesday, Oct. 5.

Friends drinking soda while eating pizza.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Organic sales growth

Pepsi's core growth metric, organic sales, has been noisy lately thanks to demand swings tied to the pandemic. But zoom out a bit and you'll see market-beating gains.

Organic sales are up 8% over the six months that ended in mid-June as compared to the year-ago period in early 2020. Comparisons will be harder for the second half of fiscal 2021, which helps explain why most investors are looking for the company to report gains slowing to around 6% for the third quarter, which ends in early September.

Beyond that headline figure, look for Pepsi to show more market share gains in the snack food and beverage segments even as the Quaker Foods division sees significant declines compared to soaring results during social distancing efforts a year ago. CEO Ramon Laguarta and his team should have lots of good news to highlight here, including high demand for brands like Lays, Doritos, and Pepsi Zero Sugar.

2. Profitability

Most investors who follow the stock are looking for earnings to rise at a slower pace than sales in Q3, up 4% to $1.73 per share. Pepsi likely dealt with several headwinds, including rising manufacturing and transportation costs, along with higher input prices.

PEP Operating Margin (TTM) Chart

PEP Operating Margin (TTM) data by YCharts

Yet the longer-term outlook is one of rising profit margins thanks to Pepsi's expanding sales footprint and aggressive growth bets in areas like energy drinks. Right now, most of the excess cash from these wins will go toward the business and paying down debt accrued during the earliest phases of the pandemic. But Pepsi will soon be able to ramp up its direct cash returns, mainly through a return to aggressive stock repurchases starting in fiscal 2022.

3. The new outlook

Heading into the report, Pepsi is expecting sales to rise roughly 6% this year after jumping about 4% in each of the last two years. That outlook was increased back in July and might get another slight bump this week if demand trends held up.

The big question here is whether Pepsi had trouble passing along higher prices to shoppers, which might stall its growth momentum. Consumers might start trading down to less premium snacks in the portfolio if they become more price conscious, too.

Yet there isn't a hint of this behavior happening yet, and so it's likely that Pepsi will have good things to say about the second half of its fiscal year this week. That's why you might want to take a closer look at this Dividend Aristocrat, which this year will qualify as a Dividend King, with 50 years of consecutive annual raises behind it.

That kind of streak can only come from an unusually strong business with major competitive assets. And it's another factor to suggest Pepsi will provide solid returns for investors over the years.