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Whole Foods Market, Inc. (WFM): This Niche Industry Continues to Defy Skeptics

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According to data provider Nielson, the organic and natural food segment now accounts for roughly 13% of the grocery business’ total sales.While organic products were once considered to be a passing fad, they have entered the mainstream due to an aging population’s need for improved health through diet.In addition, a rise in childhood health problems, including food allergies, is prompting parents to rethink their children’s food intake.So, how does an investor ride this trend to investment gains?

Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM)

With 7 million customers visiting its stores each week, Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) is the organic segment’s 500 pound gorilla, offering the widest selection of brand name and proprietary label products. The company’s locations are more than grocery stores, with in-store cafes that offer community outreach projects like nutrition seminars and cooking demonstrations. Whole Foods is also a big proponent of buying local, funding a national program that provides micro loan financing for budding food entrepreneurs.

In its latest fiscal year, Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) reported another year of solid financial results, with increases in revenues and operating income of 15.7% and 35.8%, respectively, versus the prior year. The company continued to add to its national base of stores, with twenty-four new locations, and it delivered a same store sales gain above 8%. More importantly, While Foods achieved a record operating margin due to greater sales from its proprietary brands and economies of scale from more efficient operations in its new markets.

In 2013, Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) is expecting double-digit sales and income growth once again, as it hopes to add almost 10% more stores to its network.With 349 stores, as of March 2013, the company is only a third of the way to its goal of 1,000 stores in the U.S.Additionally, greater expansion in international markets is a long term opportunity, given the universal need for better food choices.

Of course, success breeds competition and Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM)’ challengers have been using the equity markets lately to fund their ambitious growth plans.The Fresh Market Inc (NASDAQ:TFM) had a successful initial public offering in late 2010, as investors hoped to catch another rising star.While the company is only about a third the size of its larger competitor, with roughly 130 stores, it follows a similar strategy of selling locally sourced products in a neighborhood-friendly store format.

In its latest fiscal year, The Fresh Market Inc (NASDAQ:TFM) also performed well, with increases in revenues and operating income of 20% and 21.7%, respectively, compared to the prior year. Like Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM), The Fresh Market enjoyed strong same store sales, up 5.7% for the period, and an improved gross margin due to a focus on proprietary brand products. In addition, the company’s profitability gained from its ability to spread its overhead over a larger number of stores, as it expands beyond its southeast U.S. home base.

Looking ahead, The Fresh Market Inc (NASDAQ:TFM) sees strong domestic growth opportunities and has a long-term goal of 500 stores nationwide, versus the roughly 130 stores in existence today.With almost a quarter of its stores in Florida, The Fresh Market has plenty of metropolitan markets and new customers to attract.While the company is spending heavily on capital expenditures today, it should reap the benefits of a large and more efficient network over time.

Another recent public offering was Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage Inc (NYSE:NGVC), a small chain of grocery and nutritional supplement stores that has company roots dating back to the 1950’s. Even more so than Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) and The Fresh Market Inc (NASDAQ:TFM), Natural Grocers provides nutritional advice to consumers, with accredited health coaches located in each store.The company has growth ambitions that are consistent with its competitors, including an eventual expansion of its domestic store network to over 1,100 locations.

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