You wouldn't know it judging from the market's reaction the day after Whole Foods Market (WFM) released earnings for the first quarter of 2014 (the stock closed down more than 7%), but the company had a pretty darn good quarter.
Anytime a company misses expectations, cuts guidance, and talks about margin pressure, it's understandable that some investors immediately think it's time to jump ship. But therein lies the difference between plain old investing and investing Foolishly. Paying more attention to what the company is doing versus what it did can open up some pretty healthy opportunities for investors with time on their side.
Get your head (of lettuce) in the game
Whole Foods is experiencing more competition, plain and simple. We all knew it was coming. It was just a matter of when. The IPO of Sprouts Farmers Market (SFM -0.03%), for example, has helped bring the organics and naturals market more to the forefront, and ultimately that's a good thing. But it also means that Whole Foods will need to up its game if it wants to continue leading the way toward better eating.
One of the more interesting developments for Whole Foods over the past couple of months is the evolution of its perceived market opportunity. For some time now, management had always seen the U.S. market opportunity as around 1,000 stores. Now it's raised that bar to about 1,200 stores. As management said in the call:
We're looking in dense urban markets, and there's many stretches across the country that remain untapped. I think that's a major opportunity for us that gives us confidence to reach the 1,200 number.
Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery
Now, I can't help at least wondering whether this has something to do with the fact that Sprouts noted a market opportunity of around 1,200 stores in its original S-1 filing to go public:
According to research conducted for us by The Buxton Company, a customer analytics research firm, we have significant growth opportunities in existing and new markets across the United States with the potential for approximately 1,200 locations operating under our current format.
But by the same token, does it matter? If Whole Foods sees the opportunity for 1,200 stores, then that's ultimately a good thing. Considering it has only 373 stores open today, that means investors can look forward to some serious growth in the coming years.
Building a long-term strategy
The big question investors face today with Whole Foods is one of the short run versus the long run. Whole Foods has dealt with the "Whole Paycheck" nickname and its implications for some time now. Higher-priced goods with a focus on organics and naturals seemed to limit its customer base and raise concerns for investors as to whether the concept would be able to grow enough to justify the premium multiple its valuation has always garnered.
But today's Whole Foods is doing a good job of clearing this hurdle by becoming more price competitive. Slowly but surely, the company has started to introduce more value in its stores, with initiatives such as expanding its store-brand 365 offerings and also offering more high-grade conventional produce offerings to give consumers more choices.
It's no surprise how this is playing out in the short run. Talk of margin pressure along with lower comps has investors concerned, and I'm not necessarily saying they shouldn't be. In the short run. But we're Fools. We're not focused on the short run. And neither is management.
I'm all about that long-run action, boss
Management has its eyes on the long game here. The logic behind the strategy is simple. Offering more value and more choices for consumers in the long run should mean more customers come in to buy more stuff, which will ultimately drive top-line growth while allowing management to still achieve the 34%-35% long-term gross-margin target that management has set in its sights. I think it can be done, but the minute I walk into a Whole Foods store and question the experience and the offerings, I'll be the first to reassess.
The Foolish bottom line
We ultimately make a leap of faith with any investment, and Whole Foods is no different. Is it a lock that management will nail this strategy? No. Nothing is ever certain in investing. But given the team behind it all, I like its chances. As Whole Foods continues to grow, investors should expect its multiple to start pulling back a bit; that's just the normal evolution of any growth story. But that shouldn't deter investors from considering the stock today. Short-term investors headed for the exits spells opportunity for Foolish investors who will find in Whole Foods a stock that they can plan on holding onto for the next decade and beyond.