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Is Whole Foods Market, Inc. (WFM) Paycheck Now Half Paycheck? – Safeway Inc. (SWY), The Kroger Co. (KR)

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A total pricing and promotional change is overtaking Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) that may mean higher value for customers but lower share prices for investors. Wall Street does not like the company’s strategy to cut prices as it moves forward with its master plan to open more stores to meet a goal of triple their current US store count.  Part of that plan involves a concerted move into smaller and less affluent locations. Analysts are seeing this as diminishing its high end cachet, which had led to the moniker “Whole Paycheck.”

Grocery stores generally have margins so thin you can see right through them, like shavings of prosciutto. The profit margin at Safeway Inc. (NYSE:SWY) is 1.35%, and at The Kroger Co. (NYSE:KR) it’s .77%. SUPERVALU INC. (NYSE:SVU)‘s margin is gasping for breath at -1.38%. These make Whole Foods Market look like a retail genius with its 4.06% profit margin.

Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM)

The Competitive Environment

Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) had been a market darling in 2011-12, but it’s barely up 5% over the last year with a recent decline from $97.00 before earnings to $84.00 on Feb. 26. Part of the reason the stock slumped is that the large grocery chains, already located in these smaller communities, have been offering plenty of the healthy alternatives and brands that Whole Foods carries as well as the service counters: the fish, meat, cheese, and bakery on-site for which Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) is known. Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) will have to compete with Safeway Inc. (NYSE:SWY) and The Kroger Co. (NYSE:KR)-level prices. Of course, it’s not just Safeway Inc. (NYSE:SWY) and The Kroger Co. (NYSE:KR); they just happen to be the largest and best-known publicly traded chains.

Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) is going to be competing for that grocery dollar not only with the big chains but also with privately held grocers like Wegman’s, which fosters hugely loyal shoppers who call themselves Wegmaniacs. Wegman’s store openings are events that draw up to 24,000 on an opening weekend. The stores are very similar to Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) with samplings and healthy food, but also the normal staples of a Safeway Inc. (NYSE:SWY) or The Kroger Co. (NYSE:KR). Not only that, Wegman’s is rated number one in grocery satisfaction in a survery conducted by Consumer Reports, with the other competitor for the Whole Foods customer, Trader Joe’s, at number two. To put this in perspective, Wegman’s has only 81 stores to Whole Foods’ 345. Whole Foods also has stores in Canada and England.

On the call, Whole Foods EVP David Lannon admitted that competition is increasing across the nation and that this change in price philosophy is essential. Kroger is its largest competitor with 2,354 grocery stores, 2,000 more than Whole Foods. Kroger also operates fuel centers, convenience stores, and fine jewelry stores (for real!). The Kroger Co. (NYSE:KR) has a P/E more than twice as large as Safeway Inc. (NYSE:SWY)’s at 22.47 and a 2.00% yield. Analysts expect 9.80% five year EPS growth annually. It just hit a 52 week high of 29.57 on March 5, and the company reports again March 7.

Why Margins May Compress

Here’s the comment from co-CEO Walter Robb on the earnings call that sunk Whole Foods’ shares, “We intend to expand our value offerings across the store and improve our competitive price positioning. As such, we are not forecasting an improvement in gross margin this year” (from Seeking Alpha transcript). Despite Robb telling analysts in the Q&A that this strategy was an important part of gaining market share, the stock sold off 8.2% the next day on high volume.

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