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Kroger and Costco outshine Walmart

Walmart didn’t mention competitive issues as a source of sales weakness during its fourth quarter, but reports this week from Kroger and Costco indicate they were at least a contributing factor.

This was especially true in the case of Costco. Recall that Sam’s reported a same store sales decline of 0.1% during the fourth quarter ended January 31, after a 1.8% gain the prior year. Operating income fell 15.3% to $425 million. At the time, Sam’s president and CEO Rosalind Brewer said the underlying health of the Sam’s Club business was sound and that restructuring efforts, including the elimination of 2,300 positions from club operations were allowing Sam’s to be more agile and focused on growth opportunities.

"The strategies we have in place will deliver value for our members, helping to grow the business and drive strong financial performance in fiscal year 2015,” Brewer said.

Sam’s expects its same store sales for the first quarter ending May 2 to be relatively flat following a 0.2% gain last year.

Conversely, Costco grew its U.S. same store sales, excluding fuel, by 5% during its second quarter ended February 16. Sam’s fourth quarter and Costco’s second quarter don’t totally match up, but both companies’ reporting periods included the holiday season. It was evident from Costco’s results and comments from CFO Richard Galanti that Costco went hard after price at the expense of profitability during the shortened and weather impacted holiday season.

For example, despite the 5% domestic comp increase, Costco’s net income declined to $463 million, or $1.05 a share, compared to $547 million, or $1.24 a share, during the second quarter the prior year. Comparisons to the prior year were made more difficult because the period included a 14 cent a share one time tax benefit related to a portion of a special cash dividend the company paid in December 2012 to 401k plan participants.

“Even with that distinction, however, the year-over-year comparison was unfavorable,” Galanti said.

Contributing to profit pressures at Costco were weaker sales and gross margin results in certain non-foods merchandise categories, particularly during the four-week holiday selling season, weaker gross margins in the fresh foods business and lower reported international profits resulting from the significant weakening of foreign exchange rates, according to Galanti.

“The first four-week period of the quarter represented the majority of earnings underperformance in the quarter," Galanti said.

Costco’s second quarter began on November 25, 2013 and encompassed the Thanksgiving weekend which fell late last year and compressed the holiday season.

While Costco was outcomping Sam’s, Kroger was doing the same to Walmart and made no mention of bad weather or food stamp reductions in its earnings release. Kroger reported a 4.3% increase in identical store sales, excluding fuel, and said it expects first quarter comps to rise between 2.5% and 3.5% against a backdrop of minimal inflation.

Walmart reported a 0.4% decline in same store sales at U.S. stores following a 0.3% increase last year. Looking forward, Walmart’s forecast for first quarter same store sales is flat compared to a prior year decline of 1.4%.