Most of the talk I’ve heard about AMZN’s acquisition of WFM revolves around the idea that AMZN plays a long game. That is, the company is willing to forgo profits for an extended period in order to achieve market share objectives–which will ultimately lead to an earnings payoff. After all, it took eight years to get its online business into the black.
What’s being lost in the discussion, I think, is the present state of WFM. It’s not a particularly well-run company. Analyst comments, which have surfaced publicly only after it became clear that WFM would be acquired, suggest the company has antiquated computer control systems. It has waffled between emphasis on large stores and small. We know that it needed a private equity bailout during the recent recession. It has begun a down-market expansion through “365 by Whole Foods” stores; in every case I can think of, except for Tiffany, this has been a sure-fire recipe for destroying the upmarket main brand.
The easiest way to see management issue, I think, is to compare WFM with Kroger (KR), a well-run supermarket company. Their accounting conventions aren’t precisely the same, but I don’t think that makes much difference for my point. (Figures are taken from the most recent 10Qs.). Here goes:
–gross margin: KR = 19.7%; WFM = 33.8%
–pretax margin: KR = 1.2%; WFM = 4%
–inventory turns/quarter: KR = 5.8x; WFM = 7.7x.
What do these figures mean?
–WFM turns its inventories much faster than KR, which should give WFM a profit advantage
–WFM marks up the items it sells by an average of about 50% over its cost of goods; the markup for KR is half that.
–the combination of faster turns and much higher markup should mean a wildly higher pre-tax margin for WFM
–however, 14 percentage points of margin advantage for WFM at the gross line almost completely evaporates into 2.8 percentage points at the pre-tax line.
–this means that WFM somehow loses 11.2 percentage points in margin between the arrival of goods in the store and their delivery to customers, despite the fact that stuff sells significantly faster at WFM than at KR.
Yes, AMZN can expand the WFM customer base. Yes, it can cross-sell, that is, deliver non-food goods, like Alexa, through the WFM store network and the 365 brand through the AMZN website. Yes, using the Amazon store card will likely get customers a 5% rebate on purchases. Yes, WFM’s physical stores may even serve as depots for processing AMZN returns. That’s all gravy.
But if AMZN can eliminate what’s eating those 11.2 percentage points of margin (my bet is that it can do so in short order) it can lower food prices at WFM by a huge amount and still grow the chain’s near-term profits. This is what I think activist investor Jana Partners saw when it took a stake in WFM.