I've already received one irate email from a reader pointing out how wrong I've been about Whole Foods Market
True, Whole Foods' third-quarter tidings were rough. Net income fell 30.9% to $33.9 million, as the company admitted that the economic slowdown is having an effect on its business (like so many others). Sales increased a solid 21.6% to $1.8 billion, and same-store sales increased 2.6%, with identical store sales up 1.6%.
In more seemingly nauseating news, Whole Foods said it will ditch its dividend and slow down spending and store growth in the short term. But hey -- most dividend payers are mature companies with their best growth behind them, although they may be cash cows. Whole Foods decided to share its success with shareholders through a cash dividend early in its growth cycle. The dividend should go in tough times.
Meanwhile, Whole Foods is still digesting Wild Oats, and stepping up expansion in a consumer recession doesn't sound like common sense to me. So I'd say these moves are prudent, given the current economic climate.
As for the FTC's continued thesis that the Wild Oats deal creates a monopoly in organic grocers, it's pretty clear that Whole Foods still faces robust competition from the likes of Safeway
Whole Foods is trading at price-to-earnings multiples unheard of for this grocer. For example, it's trading around 17 times trailing earnings, a far cry from its multiples in headier times. Oddly enough, Wal-Mart also trades around 19 times earnings now. Peek at Wal-Mart's five-year chart, and you'll see the stock experienced a couple years of pain while value types extolled its cheap virtues. The megaretailer's shares are just now returning to their 2004 levels. Guess which company I think has the better long-term growth outlook and tradition of innovation?
Whole Foods shares have fallen nearly 50% over the last year, so yes, I recognize I've been "wrong" over the last several years. I wish I'd waited to suggest the stock at far less premium prices, especially in these recent rocky times. Still, I continue to believe in this company's growth story for the very long term. The current climate simply underlines how difficult it can be to be a true long-term buy and hold investor, riding out short-term troubles.
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