Whole Foods Market Inc on Wednesday gave a disappointing profit forecast and posted its fourth straight quarter of same-store sales declines as competition, deflation and its own efforts to cut prices hit results.
Shares of the company, which is aiming to set itself apart from the competition by becoming America's healthiest grocery store, fell almost 5 percent in after-hours trading.
Whole Foods has been trying to shake its "Whole Paycheck" reputation of lofty prices and is pouring money into a new value-oriented chain called 365 by Whole Foods Market, which it said had started off well.
Still, executives said the nation's largest natural and organic grocery chain is battling "good enough" shopping alternatives from Kroger Co, Wegmans and H-E-B supermarkets, which have been successfully expanding into the specialty realm it pioneered.
Net income for the third quarter fell 22 percent to $120 million, or 37 cents per share, matching the average analyst per-share profit estimate compiled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Revenue was $3.70 billion for the quarter, short of analysts' estimate of $3.73 billion.
Whole Foods forecast fiscal fourth-quarter earnings of 23 cents to 24 cents per share, below analysts' average profit estimate of 25 cents, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
The company is reviewing plans for new stores to reflect its "more conservative" projections and to adjust for lessons learned from its 365 stores, Co-Chief Executive Walter Robb said on a conference call with analysts.
In the first three weeks of the fiscal fourth quarter, through July 24, sales at established Whole Foods stores were down 2.4 percent compared with a year earlier.
Declining costs for foods such as produce, beef, almonds and eggs contributed to sales declines, as well as consumers trading down to lower-priced items. But the company said shoppers are buying more products per trip and that some departments, such as produce, are getting more traffic.
Same-store sales were down 2.6 percent for the fiscal third quarter ended July 3. Those sales had dropped 3 percent in the second quarter, 1.8 percent in the first quarter and 0.2 percent in the fourth quarter of the prior fiscal year.
The company, which has seen higher than expected healthcare costs erode labor cost savings from centralizing marketing and some purchasing, in May debuted its first 365 store.
Analysts worry that competition from other supermarkets as well as from 365 itself will further harm Whole Foods. One analyst recently noted that the Whole Foods near the 365 store in Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood appeared to have lowered prices to be more in line with its newer cousin - fueling worries about cannibalization.
Whole Foods opened its second 365 store two weeks ago and plans a third location this year.
The retailer is testing an "imperfect fruit" program in California as part of a push to reduce food waste by selling wholesome but "ugly" produce. It also is testing a rewards program in the Dallas/Forth Worth market with the goal of launching it nationally next year.
Joe Agnese, analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence in a client note cut his rating on Whole Foods' stock to "strong sell" from "sell," citing narrowing margins, reduced prices and increased marketing spending.
Shares of Whole Foods were down $1.64 at $32 in after-hours trading.