once the worst has passed–Instacart

It’s probably not too soon to start imagining what changes there will be in daily life once the coronavirus is under control.

home food delivery

Online ordering through Whole Foods or Amazon has been impossible.  The wait for a Costco delivery slot has been two weeks+   …until yesterday, when suddenly (I hadn’t looked for a while) slots for same-day as well as every day for the next week were available.  Everything I ordered was in stock–delivered three hours later  …another change.

To me this suggests that panic buying has subsided.

Instacart

What really caught my eye is Instacart, which powers many food delivery services.  Not in a way that makes me itching to invest, though.  The markup on the food was 26%, after including a 5% tip.  That’s a lot, I think.  For a family of four that spends $1000 a month on food, Instacart would cost an extra $3000+ a year.  During a pandemic, this is probably not an issue for most people.  But in normal times, this seems pretty steep to me.

I don’t think home delivery will go away.  But it seem to me that potential new competitors have lots of room to undercut Instacart’s markup.  Also, it would seem to me that delivery from centralized warehouses is inherently less costly than hiring someone to shop in a supermarket in your place.

a surprisingly hardy breed

A caveat–two, actually:  I’m not an expert on supermarkets; grocery is, to me, a weird and wacky industry, with greater staying power than I would ever have imagined.  My town, for example, offers only a number of very dated, inefficient food stores.  A national chain has been trying to build a superstore for over twenty years on commercially zoned land it bought from a department store moving to a nearby mall.   Protests by “citizens’ committees” funded by the incumbent grocers have blocked redevelopment, as I understand the situation, despite the deterioration of the neighborhood as small businesses in need of an anchor have left.

The economics of physical grocery stores is also more complex than I would have thought–all mixed up with payments from manufacturers for premium space, the role of house brands, ancillary services like banking or a pharmacy…

Anyway, this is to say that supermarkets may be harder to kill than it seems on the surface (just look at department stores, which have been dying for almost fifty years).

 

more on Whole Foods (WFM) and Amazon (AMZN)

I was reading an article from Fortune magazine about the AMZN takeover of WFM.  Although it echoed much of what the rest of the press is saying, I was struck by it–mostly because my expectations for Fortune are higher than for financial reporting in general.

Three ideas in the article stuck out in particular:

–that AMZN’s goal with WFM is to compete head-to-head in groceries with Wal-Mart (WMT)

—the implication that because the margins of grocery chains are low they have a poor business model

–that the price cuts made by AMZN on Monday are small, therefore they make no difference.

my take

–ten campers, including yourself, are being chased by a bear.  If the goal is purely personal survival, you don’t need to outrun the bear.  You only need to outrun one of the other nine.

Put a different way, the goal of, say, Zara or Suit Supply is not to compete head-to-head on price with WMT.  that would be suicide.  Instead, those firms intend to provide differentiated clothing to a more focused audience.  Yes, it’s still clothing, but it’s different clothing.  Initially, at least, that’s AMZN’s goal with WFM.  It wants to expand WFM’s appeal to a smaller, younger, more affluent audience, not steal traffic from WMT.

–the key to profitability in a distribution business is to turn inventory over rapidly, taking a small markup on each transaction.  This is surprisingly badly understood by most professional investors, as well as virtually all the financial press–and by WFM, as well.  This is one reason that as an investor I love distribution companies.

Low markups defend against competition and create customer loyalty; continual effort to keep the growth in inventory under the growth in sales creates positive operating leverage.

WFM appears to me to have chosen do pretty much the opposite–to take large markups on each transaction, a “strategy” that has stunted sales growth.  Inventory turns are higher for WFM than for other grocers, although I suspect that this is a function of differences in product mix.  In any event, something else (or, more likely, a bunch of other something elses) in WFM’s organizational structure is all messed up.  The income statement shows that its very fat gross margins are frittered away almost completely by high overhead expenses.

If I were AMZN, I’d figure I’d attack what I think is the abundant low-hanging fruit in operating inefficiency and lower food selling prices as I made gains there

–it’s very easy to lower prices.  It’s extremely hard to raise them again–a key reason that couponing is a favorite supermarket strategy.  So it would be crazy for a merchant to lower prices across the board on day one.  $.49 a pound bananas, displayed prominently by the store entrance, is aimed at setting customer expectations about pricing throughout the store.  It’s a symbol, a promise   …at this point, nothing more.

 

Whole Foods Market (WFM)–final round

As I pointed out last week, WFM has gross margins that are much higher than the average supermarket’s.  WFM also turns its inventory in a little less than two weeks, which is two or three times the rate of a typical grocery store.  Over the past several years, it has been generating over a billion dollars in annual cash flow.

On the other hand, sales are falling.  The largest use WFM has been making of the money it generates is to buy back stock ($2 billion worth over the past three years).  Its working capital management seems to produce much less cash for it than rivals–although this may be the result of an unusual product mix and/or worry that the current poor sales trend will continue.

In addition, it appears WFM is attempting to extend its brand downmarket with the opening of 365 stores–a tacit acknowledgement that its core high-end market is saturated.  In my experience, though, this strategy rarely works.  Its main effect is typically to degrade the upscale image of the main brand.  Tiffany is the only exception I can think of.

what interests Amazon (AMZN)

–WFM has a well-known brand name, that stands for healthy, high-quality, and ethical behavior.  But it also stands for “whole paycheck,” an attribute that AMZN can most likely eliminate without damaging the rest of the image

–an ironic plus, WFM doesn’t appear to have kept up with the times in pricing, computerization or inventory control.  So there’s arguably low-hanging fruit to be picked

–WFM has a physical distribution network that culminates in 430+ physical stores covering most major markets in the US

–the NPD Group, a leader in consumer marketing research, points out that:

—-WSM stores are located in areas that are younger and more affluent than average

—-52% of online grocery buyers are members of Amazon Prime, and therefore arguably disposed to by groceries through AMZN if the company had an adequate delivery mechanism

—-60% of Millennials bought at least one item from AMZN last year vs. 24% who bought something from WSM.  So AMZN has, at least on paper, the potential to deliver a large new audience to WFM

–according to a Morgan Stanley survey, which I read about in the Wall Street Journal, 62% of WSM’s current customers are already members of Amazon Prime.  Arguably, there’s a big opportunity for AMZN to increase the frequency/amount of WSM purchases through the Prime network.

my take

From its high in early 2015, the WFM had almost been cut in half–in a market that was rising by 15%–before Wall Street began to anticipate a couple of months ago that the company would be either restructured or sold.  Although I’m by no means an expert on WFM, that negative price action is hard to ignore.  So, too, the declining sales trend.

The picture that emerges to me is of an high-end retailer that has saturated its niche and whose chief product–healthy, but expensive, food–is being commoditized by rivals.  To date, management has marshaled no adequate response to this competitive threat.

AMZN provides a face-saving way for WSM to retain its counterculture self-image while turning over its market problem to more competent hands.

 

 

 

 

Whole Foods Market (WFM), again

another bidder?

WFM and Amazon (AMZN) announced late last week that the two firms had agreed to a friendly deal under which AMZN would acquire all the shares of WFM for $42 each in cash.

Since the announcement, WFM share have traded on very large volume and almost continuously at prices above the deal.

What does this mean?

deal mechanics

If I’m a holder of WFM and the current deal stands, I’ll receive $42 a share from AMZN in, say, three months.  The value of that future $42 today is slightly less.  It’s $42 minus the interest I could earn on the money in the intervening three months.  Let’s say that amount is $0.25.

If I believe the deal is a sure thing, then, I should pay no more than $41.75 for an AMZN share today.  However, there’s always some risk that the deal will be called off.  The possibilities may be far-fetched–a government agency might forbid the acquisition, there might be something funky in the WFM financial statements…  This means the $41.75 is a ceiling, not a floor, on the stock price.  Typically, trading starts below the present value of the future payment and gradually approaches it as the deal gets closer, and as possible obstacles are cleared.  The amount below varies from deal to deal, depending on perceived risks.

Ithink WFM should probably be trading, at best, in the $41.25 – $41.50 range now, rather than at around $43.

the difference

The $1.50 difference represents a bet by the market that another, better, offer will emerge.  As a practical matter, most often these bets turn out to be correct.  Maybe it’s because the bettors have deep industry knowledge or maybe because they’re acting on information from/about another potential acquirer you and I are not privy to.

For me, this will be an interesting case to watch, since I can’t figure out who the other buyer might be.

 

 

Whole Foods (WFM) and Amazon (AMZN)

I was a big proponent of WFM in its early days but haven’t owned it for a long time.

My quick look at the company’s financials this morning tells me it’s an odd duck among food distributors.  Successful distribution is all about low margins + rapid inventory turnover + shrewd working capital management + rising sales leading to strong profit growth.  WFM exhibits only one of these characteristics:  rapid inventory turnover.  The number I get from the annual report, which I find almost too good to believe, says that WFM’s annual sales are 30x its average inventory.  This compares with 10x for AMZN and 15x for Kroger (KR).

On the other hand, WFM’s operating margin is more than 50% higher than KR’s and nearly triple AMZN’s.  The excess of payables (what a firm owes to suppliers) over receivables (what customers owe the merchant)–and a key measure of operating strength–is about 1% of sales for WFM, while 3.6% for KR and about 15% for AMZN.  In addition, WFM is no longer growing–the main reason, I think, the company’s PE has been cut in half over the past couple of years from about 40x to 20x (pre-AMZN bid).

WFM’s problem isn’t simply that its margins are too high to induce people to buy more than they do of what the company has to offer.  Nor is it the assertion by some that WFM is very inefficient and should be making a higher margin than it actually does.

Rather, it’s that the current market situation is highly unstable, on several fronts:

–WFM-like offerings are increasingly available from less expensive chains like Trader Joe’s or even regular supermarkets

–having severely damaged the profits of incumbent grocers in the UK, deep food discounters from Germany–Aldi and Lidl–have both announced that their next target is the US.  Even if the two are unsuccessful, increased competition is bound to mean lower prices

–AMZN has decided that the time for online food delivery on a large scale in the US has come.  It’s also possible that it too is worried about the potential effect that Aldi and Lidl may have and has sped up its food distribution plans.

 

how will the takeover work out?

It’s hard to know.  WFM’s management hasn’t covered itself in glory over the past decade.  It needed to be bailed out from operating difficulties by Green Equity Investors in late 2008.  And it doesn’t seem to have responded well to increased competition since.  On the other hand, AMZN’s experiments in food delivery have had indifferent success so far. At the very least, though, AMZN brings a strong record in controlling distribution operations, expertise which WFM seems to me to need; WFM brings a brand name and the grocery equivalent of Amazon lockers.

My thoughts:  the one thing I’m confident of is that food prices will generally be lower for consumers in a couple of years than they are now.  I’d prefer to look for places where extra discretionary income can be spent than to try to play food directly.