Kroger (NYSE:KR) is set to post earnings results on Thursday that will likely mark the grocer's 44th straight quarter of comparable-store sales growth. But investors haven't pushed Kroger's stock to new highs just because of that decade of consistency. Kroger has also made a profitable habit of stealing market share from rivals, recently by outgrowing Target, Wal-Mart, and even Whole Foods in the second quarter.
Solid sales growth
Wall Street is expecting a similarly beefy performance this week. Analysts see Kroger's third-quarter profit jumping by 15% to $0.61 per share while sales rise 10% to $24.8 billion.
Beyond those headline numbers, comps will be the key metric for investors to watch. In the second quarter, Kroger managed a sequential comparable-store sales improvement from 4.6% to 4.8% -- all while competitors were struggling to book any growth at all. However, Kroger's management noted in September that many of its customers are still spending cautiously and reporting stubbornly low economic confidence. That's one of the reasons Kroger expects to post comps growth of about 4.25% for the full year, which points to a slower second half of 2014.
Meanwhile, look for Kroger's latest acquisitions, Harris Teeter in 2013 and Vitacost.com last quarter, to both begin paying off in the form of higher e-commerce sales. Harris Teeter's robust online ordering platform was one of the features that made it such an attractive merger candidate. Since the buyout, Kroger has been testing out ways to scale that system up across its own store base, but it hasn't made anything official yet. Investors should be watching for updates on that e-commerce strategy in this week's earnings announcement and conference call.
While the online grocery ordering plans are still in the try-and-see phase, Kroger's Vitacost acquisition should already be showing up in quarterly results. Management said in September that the purchase of the health foods website has "incredible potential" to boost Kroger's online footprint. If that's true, than we should start seeing evidence of that growth in this quarter's e-commerce sales results.
These two acquisitions didn't come cheap, though. In fact, Kroger took on significant debt to fund the Harris Teeter and Vitacost buys: Long-term debt hit an uncomfortable high of $11 billion last quarter.
Debt is also elevated in relation to earnings, which is why investors should expect Kroger to focus on improving its debt exposure over the next few quarters. Specifically, management has set a goal of bringing its long-term debt level to two times adjusted profits by the end of next year, down from the current ratio of 2.3 times.
One likely consequence of that plan will be lower spending on stock buybacks over the next few quarters. In fact, repurchases in the second quarter were tiny, falling to $78 million from the $1 billion mark in the year-ago period.
Still, Kroger's financial position isn't worrying management right now. Strong earnings growth over the last year gave executives plenty of room to raise Kroger's quarterly dividend by 12% recently.
The grocer also remains open to the idea of more large acquisitions in the near future: Chief Financial Officer Mike Schlotman said in a conference call with analysts that the team "wouldn't be precluded from continuing to participate in industry consolidation" if the right opportunity came along -- even with debt currently sitting above management's long-term goal.
John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Demitrios Kalogeropoulos owns shares of Whole Foods Market. The Motley Fool recommends Whole Foods Market. The Motley Fool owns shares of Whole Foods Market. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.