The mission at Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM) is to focus on a healthy lifestyle, but for WFM shareholders, the experience has not been so healthy. Since Whole Foods stock hit an all-time high in late 2013, the shares have been cut in half.
This is another example of a former Wall Street darling that has not able to live up to exuberant expectations.
But then again, there are certainly plenty of cases of turnarounds, right? Just look at Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Starbucks Corporation (NASDAQ:SBUX). There was a time when few had any confidence in their abilities either.
In fact, when a company goes into a slump, there are actually advantages. Management has more incentive to make bold changes and try new innovations.
So perhaps we will see a comeback with Whole Foods stock? Or perhaps the problems will take a lot longer to cure? Let’s take a look at three pros and cons:
WFM Stock Pros
Pioneer and Leader in Organic Foods: WFM got its start back in the late 1970s, when the industry for organic foods was in the nascent stages. But co-founder John Mackey wanted his company to be the dominant player in the industry. Part of this was a savvy marketing strategy focused on women. But there was also an aggressive M&A campaign — bolstered with an IPO in the early 1990s — to consolidate smaller players.
As of now, WFM is the largest natural and organic foods grocery operator in the U.S. and the No. 5 publicly traded food retailer. There are 456 locations, which attract more than 8 million customer visits per week.
What’s more, Whole Foods has been making new efforts to expand its model, such as with 365 by Whole Foods Markets. Launched in 2016, this is a small format store that focuses on value pricing. Right now, WFM is in the experimentation phase. But if 365 by Whole Foods Markets gets traction, it could greatly expand the market opportunity for the company.
Attractive Market: The market for healthy foods is massive. According to TechSci Research, the spending on organic products is currently at about $45 billion in the U.S., and the growth is forecasted at 16% per year until 2020.
This should not be surprise. The fact is that consumers demand healthier offerings. But there is also concerns about sustainability and the environmental impact of business practices.
As Mackey noted on the recent earnings call: “At the same time, the market opportunity is expanding as the consciousness about fresh healthy foods continues to awaken. Our company mission, commitment to transparency and the culture of innovation are more relevant and timely than ever. And where our company is today is just a shadow of where we think it will be in the future.”
M&A Bait: The grocery space continues to see lots of dealmaking. For example, Apollo Global Management LLC (NYSE:APO) purchased Fresh Market for $1.4 billion and Onex Corporation (OTCMKTS:ONEXF) paid $1.4 billion for Save-A-Lot.
But there is more pressure on large grocery operators, like Kroger Co (NYSE:KR), to get more acquisitive since growth continues to remain slow. In other words, a deal for WFM would greatly expand a company’s footprint, allow for cost synergies and also provide more diverse product offerings in the organics market.
WFM Stock Cons
Competition: Again, the market for healthy foods is likely to see lots of growth. But of course, this has resulted in fierce competition. Mega operators like Wal-Mart Stores, Inc (NYSE:WMT), KR, Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT) and Costco Wholesale Corporation (NASDAQ:COST) have made an aggressive play for the opportunity. And while their offerings may not necessarily be at the quality of Whole Foods, this may not matter too much. The fact is that consumers also want to get a good value for their grocery shopping.
No doubt, WFM has a reputation of being about the “Whole Paycheck.” Granted, this may be a bit of an exaggeration. But then again, surveys do show that WFM still is on the pricey side. For example, according to analysts at Wedbush Securities, the company has prices that are roughly 15% more expensive compared to traditional grocers in various key markets.
E-Commerce & Disruption: Venture capitalists are showing interest in the healthy foods space. To this end, these firms are funding startups that provide new approaches like home delivery and premade packages.
Just look at Thrive Market, which is an online grocer of organic foods. For this year, the company projects sales of $130 million, up from $50 million in 2015. Thrive also recently raised $111 million.
As for WFM stock, it has taken a partnership strategy, such as relying on Instacart for deliveries. However, according to a report from Barclays, the service is 29% more expensive compared to Thrive.
Of course, Whole Foods has more than just startups to worry about. There are also the large traditional internet operators, especially Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN).
Valuation/Financials: Even with the drop in WFM stock, the valuation is still far from cheap. Consider that the forward price-to-earnings multiple is 21X. By comparison, KR and WMT trade at about 15X.
Yet it could be tough for WFM to sustain the valuation since the company’s growth has been anemic. For the current fiscal year, the company expects same-store sales to be 0% to -2%, with overall sales increasing anywhere from 2.5% to 4.5%.
Bottom Line on Whole Foods Stock
It’s encouraging that WFM is taking steps to innovate, such as with 365 by Whole Foods Markets. But this initiative is still in the early stages and will take time to move the needle.
In the meantime, WFM must fight intense competition from traditional retailers and there is also pressure from online startups. Overall, it’s going to be tough for the company to get back into the growth phase.
So should you buy Whole Foods stock? For now, it’s best to avoid this one.
Tom Taulli runs the InvestorPlace blog IPO Playbook and is a registered investment adviser representative (you can visit his site to learn more about his financial planning services). He is also the author of various books on investing like All About Commodities, All About Short Selling and High-Profit IPO Strategies. Follow him on Twitter at @ttaulli. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.