For a change, there are high expectations for Kroger Co (NYSE:KR) as it prepares to announce earnings before the market opens on June 15. That stands in stark contrast to KR stock itself, which is off more than 15% so far in 2017.
Analysts are expecting 57 cents a share while hoping for 58 cents. Either will be higher than each of the last three quarters but down from 70 cents per share a year ago. If revenue could land at $35.5 billion they’d take the improvement from last year’s $34.6 billion.
KR stock, however, has been a market laggard ever since the company decided to split the shares two-for-one in July 2015. Since then the shares are down about 18%, to barely $30 per share from nearly $39 per share. The S&P 500 index is up more than 17% in same period.
So why should you buy Kroger stock?
You should buy it if you’re expecting difficult days ahead for the economy. While other retailing stocks ride the waves of fashion, people always need groceries, and Kroger is America’s largest, best-run grocer.
The Kroger Strategy
Kroger has spent decades buying up smaller grocers and food brands, giving them autonomy and profiting from centralized bookkeeping in its Cincinnati headquarters.
If you go to Harris Teeter, you’re in a Kroger store. The same if you visit Mariano’s in Chicago, or Fred Meyer in Portland. As for Dillon’s in Kansas, David Dillon is a former Kroger CEO. Buying some gouda at Murray’s Cheese in New York? That’s now Kroger, too.
Kroger is not overly aggressive. It tends to buy past a store’s peak, waiting for its management to see the future and seek its warm embrace.
In other words, ff you’re looking at Kroger as just Kroger, you’re missing the point.
Kroger follows trends rather than leading them, but not by much. By refusing to overpay for earnings, it has let some of the freshness mania of Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NYSE:WFM) pass it by. But as prices for those assets come down, Kroger is a buyer.
What has hurt Kroger the last few years has simply been food deflation. Food costs less, so food retailers are seeing their top line decline and their margins squeezed. Kroger is not immune to this. If Trump can whip deflation now, Kroger benefits.
The Kroger Opportunity
Since closing out my own holdings in Kroger over a year ago, at close to the present price, I have been as negative on the company as anyone.
But lately I have been feeling kindly toward the company. No recovery lasts forever, and a recent Gromey consumer survey showed people are just as value conscious as ever, still preferring (wisely) to pay down debt than splurge as their parents did.
To most analysts, this means buy Costco Wholesale Corporation (NASDAQ:COST), Wal-Mart Stores Inc (NYSE:WMT), Dollar Tree, Inc. (NASDAQ:DLTR) and Dollar General Corp. (NYSE:DG). These are, in order, the value stores of the upper-middle class, the middle class, and the lower middle class.
Kroger should be on that list. The company offers less driving and walking than Wal-Mart, more selection than Dollar General, and less waste than Costco. I love Costco, but still visit Kroger several times each week, sometimes without thinking about it. Kroger has everything that can be found in convenience stores and department stores, like Fred Meyer, so it can catch people with a wide set of preferences.
Bottom Line on KR Stock
German grocer Aldi and Trader Joe’s — related by blood, though technically two separate entities — are continuing to expand on the low and high ends of the market, but many visits have convinced me that they are much more of a threat to Dollar General than to Kroger’s brands.
As the market turns south, and the economy follows, look to KR stock, a safe-haven from the retail storms.
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of the historical mystery romance The Reluctant Detective Travels in Time, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned shares in AMZN.