Investors in Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFM) finally have something to cheer about. After going through a year of drops in the company's stock following quarterly releases, shares were up over 10% after the natural/organic foods grocer reported earnings Wednesday night.
While the headline of meeting revenue projections and beating earnings expectations is nice, there's a lot more to the story. Here are five of the most important tidbits for investors from the company's conference call.
Last quarter was good, but this quarter will be better
In the world of grocery stocks, there is perhaps no metric more closely watched than comparable-store sales. It's pretty easy for anyone to grow sales by opening new stores, but the great operators draw in more customers to their existing locations over time.
Whole Foods showed a respectable 3.1% growth in comps during the last quarter, but management has seen things pick up even more during the first few weeks of the first fiscal quarter--which began on September 29th. Said co-CEO John Mackey. "Quarter to date, our comps have increased 4.6%, accelerating to 10.4% on a two-year stacked basis." That type of increase is music to investors' ears.
We're keeping prices low
One of Wall Street's greatest fears is that Whole Foods' efforts to lower prices on fruits and vegetables would ruin the sky-high margins the company has enjoyed for decades. But Mackey made it clear that this focus would remain in place for the foreseeable future:
We remain committed ... to expanding our value offering. ... We are encouraged by the pricing experiments we are running in several markets. ... Reflecting our value efforts, we expect the year-over-year decline in gross margin ... in fiscal 2015 to be greater than last year's 20 basis point decline.
The company has offset some of that margin decline by cutting back on other costs. Somewhat surprisingly for a company so focused on the experience of employees, part of that cost savings comes from shifting toward a greater percentage of part-time workers. Co-CEO Walter Robb admitted that, "from a health care standpoint that reduces our cost structure tremendously."
Don't forget about our technological initiatives
For a grocery company, Whole Foods is investing a lot in technological initiatives. The first is the company's affinity program, which is industry-speak for having a "Whole Foods card" that you can use at the checkout for discounts. The program has now rolled out to 11 stores, and Mackey said "We are very pleased with the high percentage of active customers registering for the program."
The second initiative is a mobile app that management thinks could fundamentally change the Whole Foods shopping experience. Mackey said "we expect to introduce our new and robust Whole Foods Market mobile app to dramatically improve our customer's digital and mobile experience before, during, and after visiting our stores."
Perhaps most interesting for shoppers in 15 select markets is the company's partnership with Instacart. The service promises to deliver Whole Foods goods your front door in one hour. Mackey said "Initial customer response has been overwhelmingly positive, with orders 2.5 times our average basket size."
It probably doesn't hurt to have humorous promos about the service, either.
Changing how it forecasts for Wall Street
In a refreshing move, Whole Foods has made the strategic decision to simply provide fiscal-year outlooks--which just began--and leave the forecasting game at that for the entire year. The company no longer will provide quarter-by-quarter forecasts, as Whole Foods does not benefit at all from trying to satisfy Wall Street here
As it stated in its earnings release: "Company is...shift[ing] its conversations with the investment community. Consistent with its stakeholder philosophy, the Company is focusing on a broader directional point of view and metrics it believes are key to the long-term health of the Company. In addition, the Company is not planning to provide regular quarterly updates to its annual targets."
Store remodels matter, in a big way
In addition to ramping up the development pipeline for new stores -- which now number over 400 worldwide for the first time -- Whole Foods is investing aggressively in refreshing the look of its older locations. "We are refreshing approximately 70% of our stores over 10 years old," Mackey said.
When asked by an analyst what kind of effect these remodels have on stores, David Lannon, executive vice president of operations, said, "We see some big comps." That's important, as the segment of stores over 11 years old showed comps of just 2.9% during the fiscal year -- well below the company's yearly average of 4.3%.