Customers boycott Whole Foods. Time to buy the stock?

Whole Foods (WFMI) stock has already fallen 64 percent from its January 2006 peak of $77.44. The recent economic dip has cut into the spending power of its customers. But now its CEO John Mackey has neatly positioned himself on the wrong side of the health care debate as far as those customers are concerned. Like Fox News Channel's Glen Beck -- whose TV show is shedding advertisers at a rapid pace -- Mackey has the right to express his views. And so do those who keep their employers in business.

Is it too late to profit from the drop in Whole Foods' revenues as its customers stop shopping there to protest Mackey's views? First let's look at what Mackey did. He authored an op-ed entitled "The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare" which called for health-care savings accounts and declared that health care is not an intrinsic right.

But many Whole Foods customers don't agree -- causing a potential loss of business as evidenced the rapid emergence of a boycott movement -- for example, in the last few days, a Boycott Whole Foods group has gained 14,000-members. And there are plenty of blog posts, like this one, urging people to stop shopping there.

Is this threat more bluster than bucks? If so, can you profit from it? As of August 4, Whole Foods expected one percent sales growth for 2009 -- about $8 billion in revenues. But Whole Foods is showing improvements in its cash generation -- adding $332 million in the quarter ending this April and another $347 million in the quarter ending July.

So unless the boycott movement takes away that one percent growth by a meaningful amount -- say $80 million -- I would not bet against the stock. Here's a quick estimate of how many boycotters it would take to make that much of a difference. If the typical Whole Foods customers spends $200 a week there, I estimate it would take only 7,700 boycotters a year to cut one percent from its sales.

That number of boycotters seems possible to reach but in theory it would only reduce Whole Foods stock price a little bit. If those boycotters really wanted to hit Whole Foods where it hurts, they could combine their boycott with a short-selling campaign.

And combining a boycott with short selling is a proven path to profits. Last March, hedge funds were withdrawing their money from Bear Stearns while shorting its stock.

Is what's good for hedge funds good for Whole Foods customers as well?

Peter Cohan is a management consultant, Babson professor and author of eight books including, You Can't Order Change. Follow him on Twitter. He has no financial interest in the securities mentioned.
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