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Whole Foods Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:WFM)

F2Q12 Earnings Call

May 2, 2012 5:00 p.m. ET

Executives

Cindy McCann - Vice President of Investor Relations

Walter Robb - Co-Chief Executive Officer

Glenda Flanagan - Executive VP & Chief Financial Officer

A.C. Gallo - President & Chief Operating Officer

John Mackey - Co-Chief Executive Officer

Jim Sud - Executive VP, Growth and Business Development

Ken Meyer - Executive VP, Operations

David Lannon - Executive VP, Operations

Analysts

Charles Grom - Deutsche Bank

Ed Aaron - RBC Capital Markets

Meredith Adler - Barclays Capital

Jason DeRise - UBS

John Heinbockel - Guggenheim

Scott Mushkin - Jefferies & Co.

Sean Naughton - Piper Jaffray

Mark Miller - William Blair

Mark Wiltamuth - Morgan Stanley

Operator

Good day, ladies and gentlemen. All sites are now online in a listen-only mode. Please note there will be a question-and-answer session later on today’s conference. (Operator Instructions) I’ll now turn the program over to our first speaker for today, Cindy McCann, Vice President of Investor Relations. Please go ahead.

Cindy McCann

Good afternoon and thank you for joining us. On today’s call are John Mackey and Walter Robb, Co-Chief Executive Officers; A.C. Gallo, President; Glenda Flanagan, Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer; Jim Sud, Executive Vice President of Growth and Development; and David Lannon and Ken Meyer, our recently promoted Executive Vice Presidents of Operations.

As a reminder, all forward-looking statements on this call are subject to risks and uncertainties that could cause the company’s actual results to differ materially from the expectations and assumptions discussed today. This may be due to a variety of factors that affect the company including the risks outlined in the company’s most recently filed Form 10-Q and 10-K. Please note our press release and scripted remarks are available on our website. We assume you have read our press release, so we will use this time to focus on highlights from the quarter.

I will now turn the call over to John Mackey.

John Mackey

Thank you, Cindy. Good afternoon, everyone. We are pleased to report another consistently strong quarter producing the best results in our 32 year history. We delivered record results on many levels including, average weekly sales per store of $697,000 translating to sales per square foot of $971; gross margin of 36.3%; store contribution of 10.8%; operating margin of 7.1%; EBITDA margin of 9.7%; and a return on invested capital of 16.3%.

Our solid execution, capital discipline, and increasing stock price generated over $413 million of cash during the quarter through a combination of $256 million in cash flow from operations and $157 million in proceeds from team member stock option exercises. We invested $102 million in new and existing stores, and returned $25 million in quarterly dividends to our shareholders. Our total cash and investments increased during the quarter by nearly $300 million to $1.3 billion.

Turning to sales, given slightly moderating inflation and rising gas prices through much of the quarter, we were very pleased to produce a three-year stacked ident of over 24%. We are not aware of any public food retailers producing these kinds of results. And while not a record, the first quarter of 2008 was the last time we produced three year idents this high. Our increase in transaction count accelerated to over 7% and our sales momentum continues to be broad-based across regions, departments and store age classes. Even stores over 15 years old comped at 7%, with healthy transaction count increases of 6%.

Our robust sales and outstanding execution along with moderating inflation helped to generate exceptional margin performance for the quarter. The 70 basis point increase in gross margin was driven by almost equal improvements in both occupancy costs and cost of goods sold. We have better tools and access to better data which are resulting in much higher level of sophistication in purchasing, inventory management, particularly shrink control, as well as pricing management and optimization.

While we’re very proud to have produced record margin results this quarter, our longer term strategy has not changed. And while we have confidence that we can continue to deliver excellent results, we do not consider margins over 35% to be sustainable. We know one of the keys to growing our sales is to improve our relative value positioning over time. So, while we might have some quarters that are higher, our goal remains to consistently deliver gross margin on an annual basis within our historical range of 34% to 35%.

Turning to new store growth. During the second quarter, we opened three new stores in Pembroke Pines, Florida; Glen Mills, Pennsylvania; and Lynnwood, Washington. We believe our new store results are reflecting the success of our broader real estate approach and our ability to go into all types of markets. New stores continue to show great year-over-year improvement and operating performance in Q2. Compared to last year’s class of new stores, this year’s class was 14% smaller in size, averaging 38,000 square feet, and produced average weekly sales per store of $576,000 translating to 23% higher sales per square foot of $791. These new stores produced about 340 basis points higher store contribution versus last year’s class.

In other news, we are proud to announce that as of April 22, Earth Day, we were the first national grocer to stop selling all red-rated seafood, including Atlantic halibut, grey sole and skate. A red rating indicates that a species is suffering from overfishing or that current fishing methods harm other marine life or habitats. Our knowledgeable fishmongers will recommend alternatives such as Marine Stewardship Council certified Pacific halibut and yellow-rated Dover sole and Atlantic flounder. We want to thank our suppliers who have worked closely with us to find high quality green and yellow-rated seafood so we could meet this self imposed deadline one year earlier than scheduled.

We also wanted to appreciate our shoppers who joined our in-store fundraising efforts to raise more than $5.5 million during Whole Planet Foundation’s Prosperity Campaign. Through grants to microfinance partners in the United States and 50 other countries, Whole Planet Foundation funds microloans in developing communities where we source our products. To-date, the foundation has committed more than $26.5 million and has disbursed more than $16.5 million worldwide. We encourage you to visit the Beyond the Numbers section of our Investor Relations webpage for more information about our seafood ratings, the Whole Planet Foundation and pictures from new stores and much more.

Since our first quarter earnings release, we have signed eight new leases averaging 38,600 square feet in size in Alpharetta and Savannah, Georgia; Maple Grove, Minnesota; Albany and Brooklyn, New York; Memphis, Tennessee; Toronto, Ontario; and North Burnaby, British Columbia. Savannah and Albany are both new markets for us. We have signed 33 new leases over the last 12 months and are on track to open between 24 to 27 new stores in fiscal 2012 and 28 to 32 new stores in fiscal 2013. We currently have in development 70 stores totaling 2.5 million square feet which translates to about 21% of our operating store base.

I’ll now give some additional color on our raised outlook for fiscal year 2012, which is a 53-week year. Please refer to our press release for more detailed information. In the second quarter, we beat Street estimates by $0.05. Based on our Q2 results and updated assumptions for the rest of the year, we have raised our outlook for the fiscal year. Our new identical sales range for the year implies 7% to 8.6% for the remainder of the year. The low end reflects the possibility for further deceleration of the two-year ident, and the three-year ident staying around 24%. The high end implies the two-year ident remains in line with Q2 and the three-year ident accelerates to over 25%. We have raised our expectations for operating margin to 6.3% and diluted earnings per share range to $2.44 to $2.47, which implies earnings per share of $1.15 to $1.18 for the back half of the year.

As currently reflected in Street estimates, we typically see higher average weekly sales in our second and third quarters which drive stronger bottom-line results, and then sales tend to drop in the fourth quarter which is seasonally our weakest quarter. We estimate the impact of earnings from the extra week in Q4 to be $0.06 per share. For the fiscal year, excluding the impact of the extra week in Q4, we expect EPS growth of 23% to 25% on total sales growth of around 13%.

In summary, it’s great to be in such a positive position where we can confidently raise our outlook for the remainder of the year. We have tremendous sales momentum as well as the capital and expense disciplines in place to leverage that momentum to the bottom line. We see great opportunities on the real estate front and are focused on continuing to build our new store pipeline. Our broader real estate strategy is bearing fruit as evidenced by the improving performance of our new stores. The marketplace remains highly competitive, but we believe we will continue to gain market share through further differentiating our shopping experience, improving our relative value positioning, and reinforcing our position as America’s healthiest grocery store.

We will now take questions. Please limit yourself to one question at a time so that everyone has an opportunity to participate. Our call will end today at 4.30 Central Time. Thank you.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions) It looks like our first comes from the site of Charles Grom from Deutsche Bank. Please go ahead.

Charles Grom - Deutsche Bank

Thanks. Good afternoon, and congrats on a nice quarter. Just wondering if you guys could just dig into the gross profit margin improvement a little bit more. It’s obviously a lot better than I think most of us were anticipating, and it sounds like about 35 basis points of the 70 was from buying leverage and maybe some early benefits from deflation. I am just wondering if you could flush that out for us. And as a follow-up, if you could just give us a little bit of a look ahead in how sustainable that trend is?

A.C. Gallo

Hi, Charles, it’s A.C. We had a great quarter from a gross margin standpoint. As I said we’ve had -- when you have strong sales like we do, like we had in the quarter, really helps with leveraging our expenses down which we had really good leverage in all of our expenses. And the other thing that happens when we have really strong sales like we’ve had is that we’re able to really cut back on shrink as the products turning a lot better. And it’s also helped us because we put a lot of systems in place over the last year that really help with that.

As far as going forward, we think that we feel really confident that we’ll have, continue to have good performance as we said in the script in our guidance. We don’t think we’ll regularly be up in this range, we really are guiding people back to our normal range, because we think it’s really important as we continue to find more flexibility in our pricing and we continue to gain through distribution efficiencies and better buying, that the important thing is that we continue to balance having the good strung margin with continued reinvesting in our prices. So that we can continue to -- we found really great results as we’ve been able to bring over time, over these years, our price is down, and really make sure that we’re really priced competitively in each market we are and we want to continue to be able to do that. I think it’s much more important in the long-term to keeping our top line sales growth going than to get too happy and try to get too much in the margin area.

Operator

Our next question comes from the side of Ed Aaron from RBC Capital Markets. Please go ahead.

Ed Aaron - RBC Capital Markets

Great. Thanks. Just to follow-up on the gross margin question. I was wondering if you could maybe speak to whether you did loosen up on any of your price investments at all in the quarter. And then also, if maybe there were any noteworthy changes in performance by sales department.

Walter Robb

Hey, Ed, this is Walter. Again, the improvements that you saw there, as A.C. said, it was an exceptional quarter. Everything lined up half from occupancy leverage and half from the buy side and other disciplines that he mentioned. But we don’t break it out by team but again, the patterns continue strong in the perishables but really they were across all regions, all stores. And so -- I’m sorry, maybe, I’m not missing your question.

Ed Aaron - RBC Capital Markets

No, I just was maybe asking a little bit more on the price investment side, if there was a change versus what you have been doing, that’s all.

Walter Robb

Yeah. No, I’m glad you asked that because actually we were -- we actually improved our competitive position by our own indexing that we do which is now across 70 competitors and 12 markets, our relative position improved. The easing of inflation certainly enabled us to do that and we did make some incremental investments there. And as A.C. said we wanted, the confidence that we are gaining from these results gives us the ability to continue to be very -- we want to be very aggressive on that as we need to continue to build sales.

Operator

Next we will take our question from Meredith Adler from Barclays. Please go ahead.

Meredith Adler - Barclays Capital

I have to say, it was a great quarter and I really don’t have a whole lot of questions. Maybe we’d talk just a little bit about labor and healthcare costs and are you seeing any particular changes or increase in those areas and how you manage it?

Glenda Flanagan

Hey, Meredith, this is Glenda here. This was our fifth consecutive quarter below 26% of sales on DSC. And most of what we’re seeing in the leverage is in the salaries and benefits categories that’s not anything that’s more than the fact that we’re focusing on it and leveraging sales has been become a very strong part of the language at Whole Foods. So no particular programs discontinued execution of what we’ve been doing for a long time.

Meredith Adler - Barclays Capital

And maybe you could talk a little about the shrink technologies and business processes that have been ruled out. How far along are they being ruled out? Is there more opportunity of more things to come in that area?

David Lannon

Hi, this is David Lannon. Yes, across the company, about half the company now is scanning in shrink so there is a huge focus at the regional level on shrink reduction. Also display techniques across the company we’re working on techniques to display our products, less products still abundantly but with less loss in general. And then store ops, which is our in-house program to really evaluate our purchases, is top of mind for all of our retailers in all the stores.

Operator

Next we will go to Jason DeRise from UBS. Please go ahead.

Jason DeRise - UBS

Hi, thanks for taking my question. I wanted to come back to the gross margin. In the back half of the year and into next year, when you’re seeing the comp sales slow a bit from where we are now. I guess how should we think about the gross margins coming down to maybe the 34% to 35% range and what kind of uplift you would expect from that? Or maybe more simply asking, what kind of price elasticity do you see from that kind of movement?

John Mackey

Jason, John here. Well, we said it in the script, we’re very happy that we have such a great gross margin results in this quarter, but we don’t think it’s -- don’t model into your plan that we’re going to be producing these 36% gross margins going forward. We feel like we have increasing competition and we are going to continue to make price investments which will probably bring that gross margin down. So, the great thing is, we’re getting the leverage, we’re seeing our shrink decline, we’re getting some buy side or occupancy costs are being leveraged down. That gives us the flexibility to be more aggressive in price. And so since we’re in this for the long haul and not just trying to jack-up quarterly earnings, you can expect that to trend back down to our historical averages. We’re going to use that leverage that we’re getting to pass it on, better prices to our customers. So, that’s what we’d like you to model in going forward.

Walter Robb

And Jason, just for the record, this is Walter. I’m not sure around this card here we accept the premise of your question, we’re not accepting lower comps we’re going for the nice comps. We continue to think we got momentum and continue to generate nice comps.

Jason DeRise - UBS

Great. I guess when I’m getting questions from investors about this it’s kind of why would they take gross margins down when it’s so good and it’s better for maybe you to answer this question. But I would imagine that by doing that you can sustain a high single digit comp growth. Is that the expectation or is it even that you can push it even further up in terms of the comp growth?

John Mackey

Because we’re managing our business for the next 20 years and not next quarter or two. We feel like there is a strategy that we want to continue to increase the value for our customers in terms of lower prices. So, we want to invest back to our customer. And so ultimately, the idea of how do you maximize gross profit dollars, not gross profit percentage. And we think if we can invest back to our customers with lower prices and increase our comp sales that will produce more gross profit dollars and higher net profits and higher EBITDA than simply focusing on our margin percentage.

Operator

Our next question comes from John Heinbockel from Guggenheim. Please go ahead.

John Heinbockel - Guggenheim

So do you think you are seeing, generally speaking, less competition for the sites that you’re looking for, given that some retailers have pulled back here. And do you think that’s more true in less urban markets or is that true broadly speaking?

Jim Sud

Hi, this is Jim Sud. We’re not seeing less competition for sites but we are a highly desirable tenant. And so we are getting a lot of opportunities in all the markets that we are looking at, both suburban, urban, large dense markets and small markets as well.

John Heinbockel - Guggenheim

And to the degree you get more opportunity, I know you wanted to be disciplined in terms of how much you grow per year, where is sort of the max you think you’re comfortable managing your growth in terms of new store openings?

Jim Sud

I think it’s a moving target. We have a guidance of 24 to 27 for this year and 28 to 32 next year. As you know, we’re a decentralized company with 12 different regions. If each region can open one store a quarter, that’s 48. I don’t think that we’ll be getting to that number any time soon. But, I think we’ve got room to grow the number.

Operator

Next we will go to Scott Mushkin from Jefferies & Co. Please go ahead.

Scott Mushkin - Jefferies & Co.

Hey, guys. Thanks for taking my question as well. I think I’m just going to jump off the gross margin question because it’s been talked about a lot and kind of about the cash that’s building up fairly rapidly. And kind of what your plans are going forward with that nice situation.

Glenda Flanagan

Hey, it’s Glenda. We haven’t changed our cash strategy. What we’ve articulated on the last few calls is we like building up a cash balance and we intend to follow our strategy of paying dividends and probably hopefully increasing that dividend payout on an annual basis. And we do have authority for $200 million in buybacks and we should have spent more than that so far than we have. And so, we probably will spend some of it. We have a lot of new stores in our pipeline and so we’re going to continue to use that to build new stores also.

John Mackey

Scott, four uses for cash, accelerate growth, dividends, stock buybacks, pile it up.

Scott Mushkin - Jefferies & Co.

And can you -- your accelerated growth, sop up the extra you’re getting or is that going to be hard to do? And how are you open to facts?

John Mackey

We’re in this happy situation where we can do all four simultaneously. We can accelerate our growth, increase our dividend, do stock buybacks and pile it up. It’s a wonderful place for company to be in and I hope it lasts for many years into the future.

Operator

Our next question comes from Sean Naughton from Piper Jaffray. Please go ahead.

Sean Naughton - Piper Jaffray

Hi, thanks for taking my questions and congrats on a really strong quarter. While it doesn’t seem like the gross margins are really going to go much above 35%, it doesn’t sound sustainable in your eyes. What do you think the opportunity is to withstand the operating margins above the kind of target that you have for 6.3% this year through a combination of leverage on the SG&A side of things. And then just as a follow-up, is there anything on the G&A expense that is seasonal in nature that we’ve seen mild deleverage on that in the last two quarters?

Walter Robb

So this is Walter and then I’ll start and A.C. can finish it. Just to be clear on the gross margins, we grew at 36.3% this time and what we said is that was an exceptional result and we don’t want you to model that high level into the thing and that our historical range that we’ve been giving you is 34 to 35. Again, we always try to under promise and over deliver so you have to put all those things together. But as over time I think that means we continue to work on the buy side of the business and all the things that A.C. talked about earlier, we can continue to bring our cost structure down. Which all that the combination of those two things will allow incremental improvement in the operating margin, so. Do you want to add to this?

A.C. Gallo

Yeah, I think we’ve shown over the last number of years that we’ve been good at really leveraging our additional sales into good expense control and leveraging our expense down and we really want to make sure that that continues. We’d rather invest the extra gross margin that we have into better pricing in the stores, better pricing for our customers. We think there’s tremendous possibility of both increasing the number of customers that we have in the store and increasing the amount of share that we get from the basket of food. And that will help us really drive down expenses. And it’s a long-term expense control that will allow us to continue to have a really good operating margin.

Walter Robb

Yeah, just a little more color. This is our eighth consecutive quarter of continued leverage on DSEs, eight consecutive quarters. And the other thing to keep in mind is that we are building our right-size stores for the right amount of capital and there are openings, as you saw in the script, much stronger than they were a year ago or even two years ago. And that also is contributing to a lower cost basis in terms of our ability to generate more operating margins.

Glenda Flanagan

And on the G&A question, one thing that’s impacting us that is greater than we had planned for actually is the stock price. Because it has led to very high level of stock option exercises which has resulted in higher FICA expense on the exercises than we ourselves were anticipating, and also our stock-based compensation expense is higher. So those are the things that pushed this up. It really wasn’t a full ten basis points increase, a part of that’s rounding, but those were the most important factors.

Operator

Next we will take a question from Mark Miller from William Blair. Please go ahead.

Mark Miller - William Blair

Question on occupancy. If comps are to stay in the higher single digits, is there any reason the occupancy leverage may not continue? And then are some of the gains we are seeing a function of leases signed during the recession where rents are very favorable? Or is there also a factor here of opening smaller stores and then as relatedly in this quarter you signed 8 leases, a little bit bigger than 38,000 sets up a little bit from last quarter. I was hoping you could comment on whether that’s a trend we will be seeing? Thanks.

John Mackey

Well, couple of questions there. I am talking to -- I don’t know if that’s a trend you are going to continue to see, it’s all opportunistic and varies from quarter to quarter. Sometimes we are getting the smaller stores, sometimes we will sign bigger stores, just depends upon kind of what shows up and what the opportunities are there. Can we continue to leverage? I hope we can if our comps stay well, stay strong. And our stores are -- sales for new stores are as good as they’ve been in the last 12 months than I think we -- in these stores I think than we could continue to leverage that. I think there is a good chance we can leverage operating occupancy cost. But there is a different mix that occurs over time and it’s somewhat unpredictable but we are hopeful.

Mark Miller - William Blair

So, if I understand your answer it’s not a function of stores that got opened on favorable rents out of the recession or anything that’s sort of benefiting you at a period in time versus in the future?

Walter Robb

This is Walter. It’s a combination. Yes, certainly, the new generation of leases at favorable rents are helpful here and I think all the things with that have helped. But also I think just this, I think we are trying to present to you a company that’s a little more mature and disciplined coming out of the recession and I think this is -- and the consistent results on these leverage lines are just a matter of the operator focus. The regions have done a terrific job taking this on and focusing and trying to say, how much more. And I think, we’re just going to strive for a steady incremental progress in these areas.

John Mackey

There are some other factors. Remember, our installed base of stores is very high. So, even though we’re doing very well on new stores, a relatively small percentage of our total sales in the company come from new stores. And secondly, even though we’re seeing great comps in a lot of our older more mature stores, it’s also true that a lot of those stores are in percentage rents. So, landlords are capturing some of that increase in sales as well. So, rents go up when our sales go up. It’s not true on all our stores, but definitely it’s true on some of them. So, that tends to moderate a little bit the leverage we might get on occupancy expenses. But we’re hopeful and optimistic that we’ll continue to leverage these as we go forward in future quarters.

Operator

And it looks like we have time for one more question. It comes from the side of Mark Wiltamuth from Morgan Stanley. Please go ahead.

Mark Wiltamuth - Morgan Stanley

Just wanted to ask Jim about those new stores that were doing 340 basis points higher store contribution. Was that just a function of the higher sales per square foot and were any of those new stores the smaller stores that you’ve been talking about for smaller markets?

A.C. Gallo

Hi Mark, This is A.C., I’ll answer your question. A lot of the -- there’s a couple of things that are going on. One is that, we know that a lot of the new stores we opened up are smaller in size than what we have been opening up before, and we’ve had favorable rents on a lot of them. But a lot of what’s happened is we’ve gotten very good at estimating where store sales are going to start, and we’ve gotten very good at understanding how to staff these stores properly and set the expectations. In addition to that a lot of our new stores are opening up with very good solid sales right from the beginning.

So we’ve been able to go in there and have these stores perform at a level with the contribution something that we didn’t usually see until a year or two later. I mean we’re coming out of the gate with very good contribution in the first year which is different from what was happening four or five years ago. So, that has contributed a lot to why our new stores are performing so well and why we feel that even though we’re ramping up, the number of new stores we’re opening this year and next year again, we don’t think it’s going to have what we used to have that growth paradox when we opened up a lot of new stores, it will reduce our profitability. Because we’re opening up these stores like they are somewhat mature stores already. And it’s having a really positive effect on us compared to the way things were a few years ago.

Mark Wiltamuth - Morgan Stanley

If my math is right, it looks like 80% new store productivity on that first year, is that correct?

John Mackey

In this crop that’s pretty close, yeah.

Mark Wiltamuth - Morgan Stanley

And your normal is like 70%?

A.C. Gallo

We don’t know what normal is. It varies a lot from year-to-year.

Glenda Flanagan

It’s been as high -- I mean we had years where it was as high as 100%.

John Mackey

Yeah. And we had other times when it’s considerably worse. So we’re happy with this crop of stores. We do think the smaller store strategy in some of these markets is really working well. And I also say that our brand is so much stronger that a lot of -- in new markets our stores are opening with much higher sales than we historically used to see. And I think that’s helped our productivity as well. We’re getting up to a higher foundation quicker, so less startup losses.

Okay. Well, I want to thank everybody for listening in. Please join us in late July for our third quarter earnings call. A transcript of the scripted portion of this call along with a recording of the call is available on our website. We’ll talk to everybody soon. Bye.

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