Taking Stock

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Local Notes

In an informal poll of about a dozen retailers in the Mid-Atlantic, the consensus about the current state of business is that it’s been awful for the past six weeks. “Obviously all of us were impacted by Easter falling at the end of the month of March this year as opposed to early April last year, but sales have been poor going forward,” said one independent retailer operating in the Baltimore area. Other retailers we surveyed questioned cited the sequestrations cutbacks, continued uncertainty about the economy and sheer overstoring as reasons why business has been so soft, but the sales slump is continuing and, with typically slower summer sales right around the corner, retailers are displaying a level of concern that I haven’t heard since 2009…a mixed bag of sales and earnings numbers to report (all garnered before the post-Easter slump). The best of the lot continues to be Whole Foods, whose second quarter numbers, for the period ending April 14, were again stellar. Earnings increased 18 percent to $305 million (10.1 percent of sales), overall revenue jumped 13 percent to $3.0 billion and comp store sales rose 6.9 percent. Whole Foods, which has been adding new stores at an incredibly fast pace over the past 18 months, announced 10 new lease signings (averaging 35,700 square feet) including new sites in Arlington, VA and Ashburn, VA. In the follow-up analysts’ conference call, chairman and co-CEO John Mackey said that the chain’s larger stores are performing very well, prompting the company to consider opening larger units (35,000 to 45,000 square feet) in certain markets. However, Mackey also noted that Whole Foods will continue to seek out smaller formats when appropriate (last month it opened its smallest store -16,000 square feet – in affluent Brookline, MA). “We expect a sea change in the retail food industry, with smaller independents closing stores or looking to get out, and we see additional opportunities for us to invest in some of those stores,” Mackey stated. … another perishables driven retailer that has performed well over the past 18 months, The Fresh Market, saw its net sales increase 15.3 percent to $369.9 million in its 13 week fourth quarter ended January 29. Net income rose to $20.6 million compared to $18.3 million in the corresponding period last year and comp store revenue grew 1.9 percent. The Fresh Market, based in Greensboro, NC, will enter the California market later this year (two stores in the Sacramento area) and will also cut the ribbon on two new Virginia stores – in Ashburn and Lynchburg – in 2013…. on the conventional supermarket side, Safeway posted solid numbers in its first quarter. Earnings rose to $118.9 million, a significant gain from last year’s figure of $72.9 million. Total sales remained flat at $10 billion, but ID revenue grew 1.5 percent (excluding fuel) and the company said it achieved its fourth consecutive quarter of market share gains in both the supermarket and “all outlet” channels…at Harris Teeter, the numbers were extremely good in its second quarter, ended April 2. Operating profit at the Matthews, NC chain increased 7.3 percent to $56.3 million (4.82 percent of sales), overall sales grew by 4.3 percent to $1.17 billion and comp store revenue increased by 3.66 percent. On the potential “sales exploration” front, Harris Teeter noted in a recent Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing that talks with other companies are ongoing. “These discussions are continuing; however, there can be no assurance that these discussions will result in any transaction. The company does not plan to provide any additional information until discussions are concluded.”…and at much maligned Delhaize, both profit and sales increased at its U.S. stores in that company’s first quarter. Operating profit rose 14.1 percent to $197 million and revenues grew by one percent. Comp store sales were up 3 percent and the company announced that its next round of store repositioning would begin later this month at its Baltimore-Washington units. Outgoing president Pierre-Olivier Beckers said that it reduced its losses at its Bottom Dollar Foods banner, which is still unprofitable, and that more 11 more openings are planned for the Delaware Valley and Pittsburgh markets in the second half of 2013 after a nine month hiatus in new store activity there. Additionally, the company has postponed its Capital Markets Day, originally scheduled for May 8, until later this year, when it said it would be able to provide a more comprehensive update on its long-term strategy, possibly with a next CEO already having been named…it was a very rainy May 7 when ground was officially broken for the new Klein’s ShopRite in the Howard Park neighborhood of Baltimore, but, no amount of rain could dampen the celebratory mood of all in attendance, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, a myriad of government and civic leaders and community members who are all thrilled with the prospect of the first supermarket in their neighborhood since Super Pride closed its store there in 1999. The Klein family was in attendance, as were ShopRite owners Jeff and Sandy Brown of UpLift Solutions. The Browns, who operate stores in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and have been leaders in the fight to eradicate food deserts throughout the U.S., are part owners of the new Howard Park ShopRite with the Kleins. Marshall Klein told the wet but enthusiastic crowd on hand for the groundbreaking that his family is committed to the community and the new store will open in 11 months. Jeff Brown stressed that getting the new store approved and finally under construction was a true team effort by a large number of people and organizations, including ShopRite, the Klein’s, the City of Baltimore and the local community. It was a truly special groundbreaking in what is a vibrant community with a strong neighborhood coalition. Mark your calendars for 11 months from now and be sure to check out the new Howard Park ShopRite …a quick update on two recent initial public offerings (IPOs). Both Fairway Market (FWM) and Blackhawk Network Holdings (HAWK), launched with great success last month. Fairway’s shares jumped 38 percent first day and raised $177 million to fund its aggressive store expansion plans, which potentially include 90 units from Washington to Boston. Fairway’s IPO was the fourth most successful in 2013 and at presstime on May 8, Fairway’s stock closed at $18.15 per share. Three thousand miles from Manhattan, Blackhawk Network raised $230 million, beating market estimates. Safeway retains about an 80 percent stake in the successful gift card business and at the close of business on May 8, Blackhawk’s stock was trading at $23.64 per share, slightly above the opening price of $23, giving the company a market value of $1.2 billion…Supervalu has named two new directors to its board. Mark Neporent, who is COO and general counsel of controlling private equity partner Cerberus Capital, fills one seat, while John Standley, current CEO of Rite Aid (and a member of chairman Bob Miller’s extended family tree), fills another board slot. SVU said it is still searching for an additional independent director and once that appointment is made, it will also add current CEO Sam Duncan as a director, filling the slate to 11 members… H&S Bakery, one of the largest and most influential businesses based in Baltimore City, will relocate its Fells Point distribution center (South Eden Street) to the Hollander 95 Business Park (still in Baltimore City) in order to better utilize its current space, which is located near the city’s fast growing and successful Harbor East development. The new facility will include a new depot and a truck maintenance building.…Core-Mark, the large convenience store wholesaler, has picked up a big, new account – Kroger’s Turkey Hill unit, the largest of the retailer’s c-store chains, which is based in Lancaster, PA and operates 268 units in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana…the National Grocers Association has released its long-awaited study on the state of the independent retailer and not surprisingly highlights the important role that independents play in the grocery biz. A few choice nuggets from the report include: independent grocers account for nearly $130 billion in annual sales; independents employ 944,200 people whose wages are more than $30 billion a year; an additional 569,000 jobs are created by those wages or with companies that support the supermarket industry; there are nearly 21,000 independent stores in the country; and independent retailers account for nearly 1 percent of the total U.S. economy. “These results are astounding, but not surprising,” noted Joe Sheridan, president and COO of Wakefern Food Corp. and current NGA chairman. “Independents are the true ‘entrepreneurs’ of the grocery industry. But beyond that we strive to enhance communities that we serve and seeing those numbers in black and white shows just how impactful those efforts are.” Sheridan leads arguably the most successful group of independent operators in the country – the nearly 50 ShopRite member/owners who operate about 250 high-volume supermarkets in the Northeast… a few obits of note to report this month. Lumpy has died. Yes, Frank Bank, the oafish troublemaker, who played Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford in the iconic sitcom “Leave It To Beaver” (1957-1963), has passed away at the age of 71. As one of older brother Wally Cleaver’s friends, he took great joy in teasing young Beaver Cleaver in numerous episodes. After his acting career ended, Bank became a stock broker whose clients included Jerry Mather (The Beaver) and Barbara Billingsley who played The Beaver’s mother, June Cleaver. You might not like country music, but the death of George Jones is a big one in the music world. Jones, whose tumultuous lifestyle often mirrored the titles of his songs (“She Thinks I Still Care,” “White Lightning” and “Still Doing Time”), passed away at age 81. His life was marked by long battles with alcoholism, drug addiction and accidents, but his rich, deep voice continued in a career that lasted more than 50 years. The great Merle Haggard (one of my favorites) summed it up when he said, “The world has lost the greatest country singer of all time. Amen.” Also entering the six-string gates of heaven was Richie Havens, the New York based folk singer and guitarist who was the first performer at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Havens died late last month at the age of 72. Havens’ set at Woodstock lasted nearly three hours because the next act (Country Joe & The Fish) was delayed by traffic and hadn’t yet arrived. Even before that, I can remember wearing out the grooves of his debut album, “Mixed Bag” (1967), one of the first vinyls I purchased in the Summer of Love. A unique performer and interesting personality, Richie Havens will be missed. And, finally, it is with sadness that I report the passing of Alfred Ciccotelli Sr., the founder and chairman of Cento Fine Foods, the Thorofare, NJ based specialty foods distributor. Alfred Sr. was a true pioneer in the business, being one of the first distributors to import olive oil, San Marzano tomatoes, panettone and other Italian foods to the U.S. market. After returning from World War II, Alfred Sr. began his career working in sales for a local distributor before founding Cento in 1963. Today, his son Rick Ciccotelli serves as CEO. “The impact Alfred Ciccotelli had on the development of Italian foods is almost impossible to quantify. He not only nurtured and helped establish entire food segments, he helped numerous associates get their start in the food business. His legacy extends beyond the brands he launched, the categories he helped introduce and the businesses he helped, for his family always came first. He was a founder, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and friend. He will be deeply missed,” said the company in a statement. And, beyond that, he was once of the nicest, most professional people I’ve met in my entire career.