For years, Whole Foods Market (NASDAQ:WFM) has been on the cutting edge of the grocery industry, changing the way millions of Americans shop for food by putting greater emphasis on quality ingredients and healthy offerings. Yet during much of 2014, shareholders have worried that Whole Foods had lost its way, with slowing growth seeming to be inevitable, driving growth-oriented investors away from the stock. In just the past month, though, Whole Foods has regained the confidence of its shareholders, and now, it appears the company does have more growth prospects than some had feared. Let's take a closer look at Whole Foods to discover how it turned things around, and what's next for the premium grocery chain.
The good news for Whole Foods
Nearly all of the gain Whole Foods has enjoyed in the past month came after its fiscal fourth-quarter earnings report, in which the company posted solid results to reverse a string of less encouraging quarters. Even though its same-store sales growth was only 3.1% for the quarter, Whole Foods set new records for overall revenue, and much better than expected earnings growth helped restore some confidence in the company's prospects.
Whole Foods also gave investors something to look forward to with its guidance for the 2015 fiscal year. The grocery chain saw faster growth in comps, and although it expects low- to mid-single-digit percentage growth in same-store sales again for 2015, the combination of organic growth and further expansion in its store count should continue to raise overall revenue levels at a 9% to 10% clip. With efforts to rein in costs, Whole Foods is also aiming at being more efficient and make the most of every dollar that comes in.
Dispelling its demons
On its face, Whole Foods' quarterly report might not have seemed all that favorable. But to put it in context, you have to look earlier in the year, at just how pessimistic investors had gotten. In February, Whole Foods' results suffered from cold winter weather and reduced its guidance on earnings and revenue growth for the full fiscal year, but investors largely accepted the numbers as an aberration. By May, though, shareholders had grown impatient with the company, and Whole Foods saw its shares plunge 19% following a tough fiscal second quarter that included further reductions to its full-year guidance. With concerns about competition from traditional grocery chains like Kroger (NYSE:KR) as well as similar specialty natural foods retailers like The Fresh Market (UNKNOWN:TFM.DL), Whole Foods wasn't able to convince investors that it could restart its growth engines. August's fiscal third-quarter results were similarly uninspiring and failed to drive much confidence in better times ahead for Whole Foods.
Whole Foods Market's new marketing campaign is likely one of the biggest keys to the new enthusiasm surrounding the stock. After essentially coasting on its first-mover advantage and word of mouth for decades, Whole Foods has finally recognized the need to call attention to its numerous innovations in the grocery store industry, and by casting itself as "America's Healthiest Grocery Store," Whole Foods is linking itself in its potential customers' minds as delivering a premium product that's worth the somewhat higher prices the company's stores are notorious for having.
Moreover, the spending on marketing comes at an opportune time for Whole Foods, as it continues to expand its footprint both by establishing a presence in brand-new communities as well as filling in coverage gaps in cities that already have other Whole Foods stores available. With other initiatives, such as wine tastings and even an in-store brew pub at one location, Whole Foods hopes to tap into whatever opportunities are available for further growth.
Whole Foods has room to run
Despite the recent recovery in Whole Foods, the stock is still far from recovering all of its losses over the past year. In order to convince some investors that the company is back for good, Whole Foods will have to string together a few solid quarters of growth and demonstrate that its new strategies will bear fruit well into the future.