Whole Foods Market, Inc. (WFM) Won’t Survive Unless …

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By all accounts, Whole Foods Market, Inc . (NASDAQ: WFM ) should be on top of the world. Consumers continue to clamor for healthier and organic food, with sales of organic groceries projected to reach a record this year, and Whole Foods largely mainstreaming that movement.

Whole Foods Market, Inc. (WFM) Stock Pops on Activist Stake, Sale Talk

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Yet, WFM stock is down more than 50% since late-2013, merely reflecting a severe slow-down in the company's revenue growth, and what has become an uncomfortable streak of shrinking profits.

What gives, and more importantly, can Whole Foods Market turn the ship around? Anything is possible, but the organic, health-friendly grocer is going to have to do more than it's currently doing if it wants to stop the bleeding.

WFM Stock: Losing Market Share

The broad brush strokes are compelling. In the third quarter of 2016 (the fourth quarter's numbers aren't out yet), organic produce sales grew were up by double-digits on a year-over year basis. Organic fruit sales growth of 17.5% carried the weight for the category, as organic vegetable sales were only up 7.5%. Still, that's solid progress.

It's just a microcosm too, time-wise and in terms of geography. Earlier this month, industry data aggregator Organic Monitor reported that sales of organic food would likely grow between 7% and 10% in the United States and key markets in Europe, exceeding $50 billion for the first time ever. And, the Organic Trade Association reports that 82% of U.S. families now buy at least some organic groceries; that's one of the highest readings in the past seven years.

Whole Foods stock hasn't been garnering its fair share of that growth though. It's Q3 sales growth was a modest - and recently typical - 1.7%, and although income was up slightly, per-share profits have now lost ground for the past couple of quarters.

To its credit, WFM has worked to take some of the edge off its "Whole Paycheck" reputation, recently expanding on its lower-priced '365' store concept , which the company has nicknamed its 'Everyday Value' brand.

That alone, though, doesn't solve the problem.

Hurdles Ahead for Whole Foods

If Whole Foods is to thrive again, two key things need to happen. Both are more philosophical than mathematical, which makes each particularly tough to accomplish.

First though not foremost, WFM has to embrace just how quickly online grocery shopping is catching on.

As of last year, 5% of U.S. shoppers preferred to buy their groceries online , and 45% of U.S. shoppers bought some sort of food online last year. That number got there very fast, and its best growth is yet to come. It was only during 2016 that Kroger Co (NYSE: KR ) turned up the heat on internet grocery shopping , while, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN ) has also only recently scratched the surface . This will be a breakout year for both companies and other internet grocers, and Whole Foods doesn't have the e-commerce presence it needs to be as relevant in the space.

Exacerbating this challenge is the idea that (there's no empirical evidence to support this, but …) the segment of consumers doing most of the online grocery shopping are the younger buyers who are also more likely to prefer organic and natural foods.

The second reality WFM must digest: Organic and natural foods are now a commodity, and must be priced as such.

When the grocery story was in its high-growth phase during the 90's and early 2000's, natural foods were a specialty good not available via most grocers, and as such, they commanded premium prices. Now organic foods are available everywhere, but the company has struggled to adjust prices.

As evidence of that stumbling block, a recent comparison of grocery prices done by Barclays determined that Whole Foods' price for the order in question was 29% higher than the alternative supplier… an online venue.

Consumers are too savvy to support that kind of disparity.

Bottom Line for Whole Foods Stock

None of this is to suggest Whole Foods Market is doomed or that WFM stock will never recover. It is to say, though, that the company is going to need to do much more in the way of e-commerce and much more in the way of cost-containment if it's to rekindle its glory days.

As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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