Kroger (NYSE:KR) is pulling further ahead of its retailing rivals. The grocer just booked its 46th consecutive quarter of comparable-store sales growth. The quarter's results also showed impressive market share gains, as the supermarket operator outgrew Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFM), and even Costco (NASDAQ:COST) over the last few months.
Following the announcement, CEO Rodney McMullen and his executive team held a conference call to discuss the first quarter. Here are five points management wanted to communicate to investors in that call.
Taking on all rivals
"Our strong sales growth was primarily driven by an increase in the number of households shopping with us in the first quarter. We also met our goal to grow the number of loyal households at an even faster rate than total household growth again in the quarter." -- Chief Operating Officer Mike Ellis,
Kroger improved its comparable-store sales by 5.7% in the first quarter. That was a slight decrease from the prior quarter's 6% pace -- but it was still high enough to beat all national competitors. Wal-Mart, Kroger's main rival, grew by just 1.1%. The grocer also beat Whole Foods' 3.6% comp and even Costco's 5%.
Organic groceries are popular
"We continue to see outstanding, double-digit identical sales growth in our natural foods department." -- Ellis.
Kroger nabbed new customers across every supermarket department in the quarter. But management highlighted the organic and natural foods sector as a real standout. The surging popularity of those products, coupled with their premium pricing, has created an opportunity for Kroger to use its low-cost model to steal shoppers from competitors through aggressive pricing.
The proof is in the comps. Kroger outgrew Whole Foods for the fifth consecutive quarter.
"We are actively expanding Kroger's use of technology, which we see as a catalyst for improving our connection with customers and growing our market share." -- Ellis.
Even grocery stores aren't immune to the massive online retailing trend. That's why Kroger has made a few big strategic moves into e-commerce lately. It purchased leading online health foods retailer Vitacost last year. And Kroger's 2013 acquisition of Harris Teeter is also paying digital dividends in the form of online ordering, which Kroger is now expanding from Harris Teeter into Kroger locations in the test market of Cincinnati.
"We have maintained our absolute debt level while returning $1.1 billion to shareholders through share buybacks and dividends over the last four quarters, and investing $3.0 billion in capital. In other words, we are keeping our commitments to our bondholders and shareholders." -- Chief Financial Officer Mike Schlotman.
Strong operating results are powering impressive cash returns to shareholders. Kroger spent $585 million on share repurchases in the first quarter while bringing its debt level down and plowing money into capital investments. Overall, management's goal is to improve earnings by roughly 10% per year while also paying an increasing dividend. Those targets seem well within reach this year.
"Based on our strong first quarter results, we raised our identical supermarket sales growth guidance, excluding fuel, to a range of 3.5% to 4.5% for 2015. The original guidance was 3% to 4%." -- Schlotman.
Management boosted its full-year comps target to as much as 4.5% growth, which would be down from last year's 5.2% boost. But price inflation on commodities such as fuel and meats makes Kroger's reported sales growth look smaller than it actually is. In fact, the company's sales volume, or tonnage, points to accelerating business momentum. "We saw the strongest first quarter tonnage performance since 2010, which is a clear indication of our ability to get pricing right for our customers," Ellis explained.
Meanwhile, management left its 2015 profit guidance unchanged at $3.85 per share. That values the stock at 19 times this year's earnings, which isn't expensive compared to Whole Foods' 24 times and Costco's 27.