Dividend payers deserve a berth in any long-term stock portfolio. But seemingly attractive dividend yields are not always as fetching as they may appear. Let's see which companies in the grocery store industry offer the most promising dividends.

Yields and growth rates and payout ratios, oh my!
Before we get to those companies, though, you should understand just why you'd want to own dividend payers. These stocks can contribute a huge chunk of growth to your portfolio in good times, and bolster it during market downturns.

As my colleague Matt Koppenheffer has noted: "Between 2000 and 2009, the average dividend-adjusted return on stocks with market caps above $5 billion and a trailing yield of 2.5% or better was a whopping 114%. Compare that to a 19% drop for the S&P 500."

When hunting for promising dividend payers, unsophisticated investors will often just look for the highest yields they can find. While these stocks will indeed pay out the most, the yield figures apply only for the current year. Extremely steep dividend yields can be precarious, and even solid ones are vulnerable to dividend cuts.

When evaluating a company's attractiveness in terms of its dividend, it's important to examine at least three factors:

  1. The current yield
  2. The dividend growth
  3. The payout ratio

If a company has a middling dividend yield, but a history of increasing its payment substantially from year to year, it deserves extra consideration. A $3 dividend can become $7.80 in 10 years, if it grows at 10% annually. (It will top $20 after 20 years.) Thus, a 3% yield today may be more attractive than a 4% one, if the 3% company is rapidly increasing that dividend.

Next, consider the company's payout ratio, which reflects what percentage of income the company is spending on its dividend. In general, the lower the number, the better. A low payout ratio means there's plenty of room for generous dividend increases. It also means that much of the company's income remains in its hands, giving it a lot of flexibility. That money can fund the business's expansion, pay off debt, buy back shares, or even buy other companies. A steep payout ratio reflects little flexibility for the company, less room for dividend growth, and a stronger chance that if the company falls on hard times, it will have to reduce its dividend.

Peering into grocery stores
Below, I've compiled some of the major dividend-paying players in the grocery store industry (and a few smaller outfits), ranked according to their dividend yields:

Company

Recent Yield

5-Year Avg. Annual Div. Growth Rate

Payout Ratio

SUPERVALU (NYSE: SVU) 4.3% (6.6%) NM*
Ingles Markets (Nasdaq: IMKTA) 3.5% 0% 49%
Village Super Market (Nasdaq: VLGEA) 3.3% 33.8% 80%
Weis Markets 2.9% 0.6% 45%
Safeway (NYSE: SWY) 2.2% 31.4% 30%
Delhaize Group 1.9% 3.7% 17%
Kroger (NYSE: KR) 1.8% 10.1% 22%
Ruddick (NYSE: RDK) 1.4% 2.2% 19%
Arden Group 1.3% (0.2%) 17%
Whole Foods Market (Nasdaq: WFMI) 0.7% (7.8%) 25%
Companhia Brasileira de Distribuicao 0.4% 16.1% 27%

Data: Motley Fool CAPS. NM = not meaningful due to negative earnings.

If you focus on dividend yield alone, you might end up with SUPERVALU or Ingles Markets, but they're not necessarily your best bets. SUPERVALU has cut its dividend and sports losses instead of gains lately, while Ingles Markets has an unattractive dividend growth rate.

Instead, let's focus on the dividend growth rate first, where Village Super Market and Safeway lead the way. Often, as with Companhia Brasileira de Distribuicao, high growth-rate stocks have low yields. And you always want to look closely at payout ratios to see if those companies will be able to maintain their high growth rates for long.

Just right
As I see it, Safeway and Village Super Market offer the most attractive combination of the bunch. Village has a yield above 3% and a hefty dividend growth rate, although that 80% payout ratio is higher than I prefer to see. (If Village boosts earnings, it could keep its payout ratio from rising too quickly.) Safeway has a lower yield, but comparable growth, and a much more attractive payout ratio. Both offer some solid income now and a good chance of strong dividend growth in the future.

Of course, as with all stocks, you'll want to look into more than just a company's dividend situation before making a purchase decision. Still, these stocks' compelling dividends make them great places to start your search, particularly if you're excited by the prospects for this industry.

Do your portfolio a favor. Don't ignore the growth you can gain from powerful dividend payers.

To get more ideas of great dividend-paying stocks, read about 13 High-Yielding Stocks to Buy Today.

We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. Whole Foods Market is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on SUPERVALU. The Fool owns shares of SUPERVALU. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.