These three companies just didn't live up to Mr. Market's expectations last week. Whether the target was set by the company's own management, by Wall Street analysts, or by the market at large, that miss can have serious consequences.

Sometimes an earnings stumble is a signal to sell, but digging in the dirt is also a good way to find turnaround candidates while they're getting beaten down. Today, there's indigestion in aisle five, cold customers in the clean room, and a weak signal in the alley out back.

Too much fiber
The first underperformer on our menu today is Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ:WFMI). The organic grocer reported earnings of $0.38 per share, below the $0.41 analyst consensus. Sales were nicely on target, though, at $1.9 billion.

Let's leave that white elephant sipping fair-trade tea in the lobby for now, and look at more of the chain's financial results. Whole Foods pulled in $112 million in operating cash flow, or $0.79 per share. It's a 30% year-over-year boost, but the wind in those sails abates quickly when you see a $153 million load of capital expenses, putting free cash flow firmly in the red.

That sounds bad, right? On the other hand, only $52 million of that capex line went into running the business and maintaining its assets. The other $101 million was put to work in building new stores, and some people would argue that growth expenses shouldn't count against free cash flows. Make up your own mind on that point, Fool.

The earnings shortfall looks like a result of higher-than-expected store opening and relocation costs, as the company pursues some pretty aggressive long-term growth target objectives.

Don't mind the peanut shells. Whole Foods' long-term goal is $12 billion revenues in fiscal 2010, nearly four years from now. The company's annual sales currently stand at $5.8 billion, so the annual revenue growth target becomes about 20%. It's ambitious but doable; this quarter's 12% sales improvement was lower than the 19% average over the last five years.

That's where our albino elephant can join the conversation. You can buy growth, too, and Whole Foods just announced a merger with rival health-food chain Wild Oats Markets (NASDAQ:OATS) in an all-cash, $18.50-per-share deal.

Wild Oats brings about $1.2 billion of yearly sales to the altar, so closing that acquisition will put Whole Foods ahead of its internal growth goals. It's not a cheap buy, though. Wild Oats' enterprise value under this deal comes to about $700 million, including $135 million in assumed net debt. The purchase is funded entirely by new loans.

Is that a marriage made in heaven? It depends on whether Wild Oats' frugal customers can get used to Whole Foods' higher prices. But the buyer here has completed 18 acquisitions already, and sports some of the fattest net margins in the retail industry. It's enough of a history to convince me of some value in this purchase.

If you can't take the heat ...
Let's move on to thermal processing expert BTU International (NASDAQ:BTUI). The Wall Street target was $0.24 of EPS, but the company fell short with a $0.11-per-share showing. That's down from $0.25 per share a year ago, on 14% lower net revenues year over year.

This disappointment follows a story line I've been tracking for some time, namely Slow Times at Electronics High. It's a story of consumers across the globe who didn't buy as many high-end cell phones last fall as the likes of Nokia (NYSE:NOK) had hoped, so the manufacturers turned around and made fewer gadgets. That had an immediate impact on the semiconductor industry, and support players like BTU took some of the same heat.

Recent signs of a turnaround at Analog Devices (NYSE:ADI) notwithstanding, the general malaise has lasted for nearly three quarters, and BTU CEO Paul van der Wansem says that he thinks it will continue for a while longer.

On the upside, the company's alternative energy systems are selling quite well, led by solar cell products. When the electronics market kicks back into gear again -- and it will, at some point -- BTU should have a solid platform from which to grow its business at a healthy pace once more. Solar power and nuclear energy projects add a dash of spice to normally drab electronics manufacturing equipment sales -- which will come up against some easy yearly comparisons soon. Keep this company on your watch list.

Breaking waves
The last item on this week's list is Powerwave Technologies (NASDAQ:PWAV), a wireless communications infrastructure specialist with a bumpy operational history. Powerwave reported a net loss of $0.90 per share, a far cry from the expected $0.05-per-share loss. In pro forma numbers (a.k.a. pie in the sky financials), the company saw a net loss of $0.22 per share. That excludes things like restructuring and impairment charges, intangible asset amortization, and a valuation charge related to Swedish deferred tax assets. But not even the heavily massaged figures came close to meeting expectations.

Management pointed a shaky finger at consolidation in the wireless infrastructure market. That slowdown hurt a bit more because the company just bought a smaller infrastructure player, a former division of British peer Filtronic.

CEO Ronald Buschur continues to believe that "while our industry is going through a significant consolidation period, there [continue] to be long-term growth opportunities within our industry." Powerwave's largest customers, Siemens (NYSE:SI) and Nokia, have agreed to merge and spin off their wireless infrastructure divisions, which is part of the problem here.

Next-generation 3G equipment accounted for just 17% of sales this time, so there should be plenty of growth opportunity when carriers decide to get serious about high-speed cell phone traffic. But judging from the slow consumer uptake of newfangled phones, as referenced above, that shift could take a long time.

Don't hang up on me!
Some of these underperformers are victims of larger circumstances, while others might have only themselves to blame. It's up to you to decide which down-on-their-luck companies should be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and which really are stuck in the mud. Come back next week, and we'll take a look at another batch of mishaps and disappointments. It'll be fun and educational.

Further Foolish Reading:

Seeking great deals on unfairly punished stocks? Philip Durell and his merry band of Fools at the Motley Fool Inside Value newsletter service are standing by to help you find great stocks at ridiculously low markdowns. Try a 30-day trial subscription to see whether bargain-hunting is right for you. Whole Foods Market is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation, and it has a store less than a block from the Fool HQ.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in the companies discussed this week. He does believe in coyotes and time as an abstract. The Fool has a disclosure policy, and you can see his current holdings for yourself.