NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - Whole Foods Market ( WFM) investors, don't panic. Just because the company reported softer-than-expected quarterly sales comps, doesn't mean the business is going to the dogs. Whole Foods shares plunged as much as 11% on Thursday following lower-than-expected sales comps for the quarter of 5.9% and a slightly cautious outlook for next year from the specialty and organic foods grocer. But some analysts see the decline as a buying opportunity. "As we see nothing structurally broken, we recommend buying, especially on any weakness in reaction to the comp shortfall," Jefferies analyst Mark Wiltamuth wrote in a note released on Thursday. He rates the company "buy." "Remember Feb 2013 when the market was convinced natural/organic was having a slowdown? These fears proved short lived and WFM staged a strong recovery as reassuring sales results soon followed. We see no change to the 7%-10% organic/natural product industry demand trend," Wiltamuth wrote. Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Robert Ohmes raised his price target to $68 a share in a research note on Thursday. He also views the weakness in the shares as "an attractive buying opportunity." Ohmes has a "buy" rating on the stock. "We remain confident in WFM's long-term outlook despite rising competition within the natural/organic food retailing space," he wrote. He likens it to the competitive benefits of Whole Foods' "difficult-to-replicate, decentralized operating structure" as well as the growing importance of a "well-executed natural/organic perishables and prepared foods offering, where we believe WFM will remain the leader," the BofA Merrill Lynch note says. Whole Foods is also expanding into "a more accessibly priced assortment as it narrows pricing gaps vs. competitors (through broad-based and regional strategic price investments and promotions) while maintaining a team of well-trained, passionate and health-conscious associates with a continued focus on local communities and industry-leading product quality," the note said. Following market close on Wednesday, Whole Foods reported fourth-quarter and full-year earnings of $121 million, or 32 cents a share and $551 million, or $1.47 a share, respectively. While quarterly earnings marginally beat consensus estimates, investors immediately honed in on the specialty food grocer's comparable store sales growth of 5.9% for the quarter and identical stores sales, which excludes five relocated stores and two store expansions, of 5.5%. Both growth rates were the lowest of its fiscal 2013 year. Investors were also concerned with the company's tapered sales growth outlook for its fiscal year 2014. The Austin, Texas-based company now expects sales growth between 11% and 13%, down from 12% to 14% previously. Whole Foods also expects comparable store sales growth between 5.5% and 7% compared to 6.5% and 8% previously. While the company still plans to open between 33 and 38 new stores in 2014, the lower sales outlook translates into full-year EPS of $1.65 to $1.69 a share from $1.69 to $1.72 a share. Consensus estimates were calling for earnings of $1.70 a share. Whole Foods shares were falling 9.1% to $58.63 at last check. The stock was up 43% as of Wednesday's closing price.
True, the company is facing increased competition from stores like Fairway Market ( FWM), privately-held Trader Joes and more generic grocers like Kroger ( KR) offering more products deemed natural or organic. Whole Foods co-CEO John Mackey specifically pointed out during the earnings call that factors including "strategic price matching, cannibalization, competition and currency had a larger negative impact on certain regions" in the fourth quarter. "We're opening more stores than we have ever before. That means temporarily there is a little of cannibalization but what we found historically ... a year later that both stores comp well. So, there is a little bit more cannibalization because we're growing faster and it's one of the factors," Mackey said later in the call, noting that Boston is one market where so-called cannibalization, i.e. too many stores going after the same customer, is happening. "On a broad level inflation continues to moderate and we're not immune to the larger macro-environment," Mackey said. "While the current uncertainty in the economy might be impacting our ability to attract new crossover customers at the same rate our core customers appear to be fairly resilient. Year-over-year we have continued to see shifts towards organic products and discretionary categories as well as meaningful increases in $50 plus sized baskets. In addition our new stores are continuing to perform very well and exceed our expectations." Not all analysts are convinced. "Heading into the print, we had felt that the Street was expectingan earnings beat and potential guidance raise for FY:14 and that based onthese heightened expectations, anything short of perfection would result indisappointment," writes Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Ajay Jain. Jain rates the stock at a "hold." "However, the magnitude of recent sales deceleration and theguidance cut for FY:14 reflect completely new realities for Whole Foods. Sentiment is likely to take a blow in the near term," the Cantor Fitzgerald note says. "We think the implications of the deceleration in the
identical store sales could be significant from a valuation perspective further down the road," Jain writes. Whole Foods "is responding to some incremental competitive threats. Based on our revised projections, we estimate that the two-year identical stores sales trajectory is set to decrease by around 300 bps from a well-established and stable range of 15%-16% in recent years to 12%-12.5% in FY:14. We think management deserves credit, however, for offsetting the recent price investments and higher store opening expenses by managing shrink and controlling other costs." -- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.