Versace: Stocks for the Consolidating Grocery Biz

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Ever since the announced acquisition of Time Warner Cable (TWC) by Comcast (CMCSA), there has been a modest uproar over the potential move higher in cable-service prices. Industry data show that cable bills have already been on the rise: The average bill for basic cable in the U.S. climbed to $78 per month in 2013, up from $38 a month in 2000. Keep in mind that this is for basic cable and does not include premium channels, Internet or telephone service. A recent report by NPD Group says that cable prices increased by 6% every year, and NPD predicts that by 2015, the average cable bill will be $123 and will soar to $200 by 2020.

If consumers are truly concerned about the prospect of price increases, however, they should be as concerned with the renewed mergers-and-acquisition activity in supermarkets.

Last year, supermarket giant Kroger (KR) acquired Harris Teeter, and Cerberus Capital Management bought five smaller chains, including the remaining Albertson's stores that it did not already own. More recently, Cerberus announced its intent to acquire Albertson's rival Safeway (SWY) for $9.4 billion, or $40 per share. After the merger, the combined companies' share of the U.S. grocery market would rise by 42% to roughly 8%. Plunkett Research puts the industry size for U.S. supermarket and food-and-beverage store sales at $650.1 billion. Adding nontraditional food stores and convenience-store sales almost doubles the market size. 

The grocery industry is no stranger to consolidation. Between 1996 and 2000, nearly 3,500 stores were purchased, representing more than $67 billion in annual sales. By 1998, the top four grocery chains accounted for nearly 29% of industry sales, up from roughly 16% in 1992. Consolidation continued, albeit at a slower pace, and by 2009 the top four retailers accounted for 42% of U.S. grocery sales. According to data from Progressive Grocer, the top five supermarket chains by sales in 2013 were Wal-Mart (WMT), Kroger, Target (TGT), Safeway and Publix Super Markets. On the basis of total revenue figures, those five companies accounted for 40% of U.S. grocery industry sales last year across supermarket, food and beverage, nontraditional food stores and convenience stores.

The big dog in the grocery industry is Wal-Mart, which accounts for nearly 30% of the industry, according to figures from Euromonitor International, up from 4% just 16 years ago. Other players to watch in the grocery industry include Costco COST as well as Whole Foods (WFM) and Trader Joe's, as well as those companies that are creeping into online grocery delivery, such as Amazon (AMZN). 

The question is whether the continued consolidation in the grocery industry will lead to higher prices. 

Rather than get caught up in that, perhaps a better way to think about it is to focus on areas in which grocery chains are seemingly all expanding. Restaurant chains are focusing on gluten-free and low-calorie meals, while grocery chains have seen an increase in gluten-free and non-GMO products. According to the 2014 Market LOHAS (lifestyle of health and sustainability) MamboTrack annual consumer research study, more than 80% of participants claim to seek out non-GMO products, and seven in 10 buyers searched for gluten-free products. 

The quick response from many will likely be Whole Foods, but I am more of a food-chain (no pun intended) kind of investor. One company that counts Whole Foods as a meaningful customer (36% of 2013 revenue) and serves the natural, organic and specialty foods and non-food products is United Natural Foods (UNFI). Another natural, organic and specialty food products company is SunOpta (STKL). United Natural's shares have underperformed the S&P 500 so far this year but have held up far better than Whole Foods' shares. Although SunOpta's shares are trading at a better valuation relative to United Natural, Whole Foods and Hain Celestial (HAIN), SunOpta's shares have entered overbought territory, and that means you should stay away, at least for now.

Clarification: This column has been revised to reflect that Cerberus purchased its remaining stake in Albertson's stores.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published at 10 a.m. on Real Money Pro on March 19. Sign up for a free trial of Real Money.

At the time of publication, Versace's Thematic Growth Portfolio, which he manages, owned UNFI. Christopher Versace writes the " PowerTrend Profits" newsletter and " ETF PowerTrader" trading service, which both use a thematic investing perspective that ties in economics, demographics, psychographics, technology and more. He's also the host of PowerTalk, a weekly podcast that features conversations with public and private management teams, as well as other thought leaders, for the benefit of both individual and institutional investors.

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