Today’s tease comes in for the Money Map Report, in some articles where they hint around about the best way to double your money on the stock they think can be the “Next Whole Foods.” The pick is by Keith Fitz-Gerald, but We get a bit of an introduction from Steve Christ in a free article lead-in to the ad:
“There’s an incredible new trend brewing right now. And it’s incredibly profitable too…
“… this particular industry has grown from “only” $3.6 billion a year in 1997 to more than $31.5 billion today.
“That’s especially impressive when you consider that this growth – all 775% of it – occurred during the greatest sustained economic downturn since the Great Depression.
“You see, the industry – and a company that just went public in July – is set up to benefit from an extreme cultural shift that’s gaining speed and strength every day.
“I’m talking about the movement towards ‘real’ food-not ‘fake.'”
And this …
“Whole Foods has plans to nearly triple … to about 1,000 stores by moving into suburban and other underserved markets.
“According to Money Morning Chief Investment Strategist Keith Fitz-Gerald, that’s just a sign of what’s to come in the organic food industry.
“‘People are becoming acutely aware of what they put in their bodies’ Keith said, ‘and they don’t want it to be genetically modified, full of high-fructose corn syrup, or created with chemicals, herbicides, preservatives, and growth hormones.'”
Well … not everyone is becoming acutely aware. Coca Cola still sells more than one serving of their products (mostly Coke and Diet Coke) per person, per day in the United States, and we are notoriously eager to try every new processed convenience food — from the frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich (the absurd Uncrustables are 15 years old this year!) to the pressurized can of pancake batter.
But yes, I agree this is a trend that’s not likely to crest anytime soon — more organic, more natural, hopefully less processed (though I’m a sucker for organic and natural convenience foods myself).
So how do we play that trend as an investment? Well, there’s always Whole Foods (WFM), of course, a stock I like but have never owned (I can’t seem to get the timing right on that one — when it has dipped or seen lower prices, I wasn’t paying attention to it … though it’s actually looking pretty good to me again lately, I’m in the process of taking a closer look).
But Whole Foods is already pretty big. Not huge — larger grocery chains like Kroger and Supervalu have close to 2,500 stores each, Safeway comes in close at about 1,500, Whole Foods has about 350 stores, with ambitions to continue increasing that store count by 5-10% per year and an assertion that they can easily reach 1,000 stores in the United States without saturating the market.
And Whole Foods has been a remarkable growth engine for investors for many years — since well before it was touted as the “New American Super Brand” by the Motley Fool brothers in the early days of Stock Gumshoe (that was six years ago — though they still own it and tease it now and again), but when you’ve got a big growth company that looks a little bit expensive, with fears that the growth may be petering out or cresting, you can bet that someone will try to sell you on the idea that there’s an up-and-comer ready to eat their lunch.
So that’s what we’ve got today — Keith Fitz-Gerald thinks he’s found the “next Whole Foods.” Here’s how he hints around about this one in the attempt to get you to subscribe to the Money Map Report for the full story:
“As Whole Foods becomes referred to as ‘Whole Paychecks’ among more and more shoppers, consumers will look elsewhere for cheaper organic products.
“That’s where this company has a competitive advantage with its much smaller stores. As a result, they are able to offer prices 8%-10% lower than Whole Foods.
“What’s more, the company offers entirely organic and natural products, whereas Whole Foods offers a combination of organic and non-organic products.
“You may not think this is a big deal, but there’s a hidden benefit since it means shoppers don’t have to waste their time reading labels. They can rest assured that every last item has been pre-screened before it hits the shelves.
“… here’s where the payoff really is for investors: the company used the $54 million it raised in its share offering to pay off debt and can now fund its expansion with a clean slate. Very few companies have this luxury….
“… the company plans to expand its store count by 20% a year.
“And with just 60 stores currently in operation and the prospect of 1,000 stores in the future, that’s practically like buying Whole Foods at the beginning of its run.
“Since the company’s stock began trading publicly in July 2012, shares have gained 34.36%. Says Keith: ‘I don’t expect the price to stay so low for long.'”
And the note also adds that this pick was recommended in the Money Map Report in their December issue … which would mean they’re already doing pretty well. The pick being teased is Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage (NGVC), and the shares were mostly around $20 in December and they’ve recently been on a spike up to around $24 — though this is a new and pretty thinly-traded small stock, with a market cap of only about $500 million, so it’s been a very bumpy ride since the IPO, with quite a few weeks when the stock was up or down 10%.
The stock is not obviously cheap, and it’s pretty heavily shorted, but it’s not wildly out of line with the valuation of Whole Foods or the other specialty grocery chains. There aren’t that many really comparable publicly traded stocks — there’s The Fresh Market (TFM), which is more of a gourmet shop chain but also appeals to a similar demographic, but really the main competition for Natural Grocers is Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s (still privately held) and your local small natural grocery store or regional chain.
So how do they stack up? Here’s a wee bit of a chart for you:
|Whole Foods||Natural Grocers|
|Forward Price/Earnings (estimated)||25||40|
|Expected Annual Earnings Growth (next five years)||19%||26.5%|
|Market Capitalization||$15.5 billion||$550 million|
These companies are not all that comparable on meany measures — the average Natural Grocers shop is about 10,000 square feet, similar to Trader Joe’s and of necessity pretty limited in scope, and the average Whole Foods is 38,000 square feet, much more like a smaller traditional supermarket. Natural Grocers does indeed focus on being more restrictive than Whole Foods, refusing to sell any non-organic produce, but both have restrictions on what they sell (no artificial flavors or colors, no bleached flour, lots of forbidden chemical ingredients) — the spiel is that Natural Grocers is so much more careful that you don’t have to check to see if the produce is organic or read the label, they only sell the good stuff. They also don’t offer prepared foods or the big variety of meats that Whole Foods does — which is probably part of the reason (along with economies of scale) that WFM can squeeze out a larger profit margin (4% vs. 2% as of last year).
Will that mean they can take market share away from Whole Foods? Or expand quickly enough to build businesses in smaller areas before Whole Foods can establish a presence? Well, maybe, though I suspect that they’re more likely to supplement and coexist with Whole Foods (much as Trader Joe’s does) in many markets, and in smaller markets they’d be more likely to hurt the small local natural foods shops and coops. I expect we’ll find that this trend toward more natural and organic food is large enough to support a lot of businesses — and clearly, there are a large number of traditional supermarkets (not all) that just can’t or don’t provide the ethical, health or wellness products (and reassurance, and vibe) that many shoppers want.
It’s an interesting business, with a strong social trend backing them up and a pretty rapid growth plan — but when I browse through the numbers I feel a bit more comfortable with Whole Foods. That’s mostly because they’ve built an incredible national brand and have had very solid growth over a long period of time (though sales did decline during the last recession before bouncing back up), and they’ve proven that they can gobble up any competitors who are worth eating — like the last natural foods darling to come out of Colorado, Wild Oats Markets, which they bought a few years back. NGVC is just so very, very tiny with only 60 stores that it seems likely they’ll make expansion mistakes that would really hit their bottom line — or simply be more expensive than expected. Whole Foods also carries no debt, and they have a small but rising dividend of 1% (and one that they can easily afford to grow even as they invest in significant store growth over the next two years, it’s only about a 30% payout ratio right now).
Whole Foods is also clearly tracking the urban and suburban success of Trader Joe’s and other small specialty and natural foods stores, and they’re being flexible with their expansion — I doubt they’ll open many 10,000 square foot stores, but they are going smaller for some locales where a 40,000 square foot natural supermarket just can’t sell enough to survive.
Perhaps my initial reaction that I’m more comfortable with the big guy than with the upstart is because I don’t know NGVC at all, and I think investors are generally too eager to jump on the “up and coming” pick and to underestimate the huge power of a large store count and an established brand. In truth, the expanding natural foods business is probably going to help all of these companies — and having a huge player like Whole Foods preaching the gospel and creating a national market and demand should also help to drive acceptance of more niche products and drive down prices of natural foods as consumption increases.
I’ve never been in a Natural Grocers, and I shop at Whole Foods with some regularity — Natural Grocers started in Colorado and is mostly spread across the Western half of the country, so although they had a pretty good IPO and their stock is doing quite well right now, it may also be that they won’t get the full measure of respect from Wall Street analysts until they have a store in Westchester, NY or Greenwich, CT. And I probably won’t make my way into one of their stores until they hit Massachusetts. Both companies have strong leadership teams, with John Macke at Whole Foods always ruffling a few feathers somewhere and with the founding family of Natural Grocers still calling the shots.
So what do you think? Interested in picking up some natural foods shares (and you can throw in suppliers like Hain Celestial (HAIN) or Annie’s (BNNY) to the mix if you like)? Have a preference for the more rapid growth of the new guys at NGVC (that’s not fair — the company’s actually older, only their big expansion is new) or for the much larger, slower growing and perhaps yuppie-tainted and less-organic Whole Foods? Let us know with a comment below.