Whole Foods: Check It Out!

Whole Foods Market (NYS: WFM) has brought some tantalizing tidings to the checkout line. In an environment when many food-oriented companies have grappled with rising costs and weakened margins, the organic and natural foods grocer pulled off an excellent quarterly showing.

First-quarter net income increased 33.4% to $118.3 million, or $0.65 per share. Revenue increased 13% to $3.4 billion, and comparable-store sales surged an impressive 8.7%. Gross profit increased 10 basis points to 34.7% of sales, and operating margin came in at 5.6%.

Even better, Whole Foods increased its operating margin and earnings outlook for fiscal year 2012, promising even healthier things to come. The grocer expects operating margin of 5.9% in fiscal 2012, and anticipates earnings in the range of $2.28 per share to $2.32 per share. (It previously expected 5.7% to 5.8% operating margin, and earnings of $2.21 per share to $2.26 per share.)

This quarter is particularly notable given one of this quarter's biggest trends: food companies' margin-crimping costs. For example, Starbucks (NAS: SBUX) and McDonald's (NYS: MCD) both recently served up solid quarterly results, but both had to tackle higher costs for some commodities. (Read Foolish coverage here and here.) These companies fared better than most, though -- no surprise given their high brand strength.

Whole Foods' shares have jetted to all-time highs, and it certainly looks like an expensive stock. It trades at 31 times earnings, which most certainly is a higher multiple than, say, Wal-Mart (NYS: WMT) , which trades at 13 times forward earnings, or Safeway (NYS: SWY) , which sports a forward price-to-earnings ratio of 12. Investors may be surprised to see Wal-Mart included here, but the megaretailer is also the nation's largest grocer.

However, Whole Foods' premium price reflects a high-performing business that delivers excellence. Last May, I bought some shares of Whole Foods for the Rising Star portfolio I'm managing for Fool.com, and a big part of the premise was (and continues to be) the company's reputation for continued growth and innovation.

Not only is Whole Foods continuing to target opening 1,000 stores, remember that Whole Foods' focus on mindful eating greatly benefits from the macro trend toward healthier consumption. Here's one example: There's a good reason Wal-Mart recently launched its "Great for You" labeling program. Safeway has "SimpleNutrition" signage on some items, too. Healthy eating and nutrition have become increasingly important to Americans, and Whole Foods was ahead of the curve on that trend.

Today's price on Whole Foods does look like a premium one, and short-term traders could end up disappointed. However, those who are investing today for the copious growth to come over the very long haul probably won't end up with buyers' remorse, just an ownership stake in a great, growth-oriented company.

If you're on the lookout for an international retailer that's geared up for similar growth, check out our free report: "The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2012." The report's available for free, but it won't be forever, so act now.

At the time thisarticle was published Alyce Lomax owns shares of Whole Foods Market and Starbucks in her personal portfolio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Starbucks, Whole Foods Market, and Wal-Mart Stores. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Whole Foods Market, McDonald's, Wal-Mart Stores, and Starbucks. Motley Fool newsletter services have also recommended creating a diagonal call position in Wal-Mart Stores. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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