Consumer

Shelly Banjo is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering retail and consumer goods. She previously was a reporter at Quartz and the Wall Street Journal.

Caffeine Rush
Starbucks stock tear is tempered
Source: Bloomberg

Growing up, when I brought home an A report card, the response in my household was always the same: What, you couldn't manage to get an A+?

And so it goes for Starbucks, which on Thursday evening reported its best holiday sales ever, in the middle of a global retail bloodbath. Despite this, the coffee chain's shares dropped by as much as 5 percent in after-hours trading and fell in early Friday trading, while the rest of the market was rallying.

Sales at established Starbucks stores grew 8 percent year-over-year in the quarter that ended Dec. 27, the 24th consecutive quarter of sales growth at 5 percent or over. For some context, the last time Dunkin' Donuts posted sales growth beyond 5 percent was in 2012. For Walmart, it was 2005. 

Steady As She Goes
Starbucks year-over-year sales growth
Source: Bloomberg

The company has been killing it with mobile ordering and delivery, new premium coffee offerings to stand apart from its peers and keep pricing power, and serving more food and alcohol to keep sales going after the morning caffeine rush and throughout the  day. 

You could chalk up the stock drop to an expectations mismatch, but it's an awfully tiny one: Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg had expected Starbucks to forecast second-quarter earnings at 40 cents per share. The coffee chain set the target at 38 cents to 39 cents. (As one investor pointed out to me, when a company's expectations are lowered by such a small margin, you know they've tried every legal accounting trick in the book to get over that hurdle).

Other investors might fear that a significant boost of share buybacks--double already this quarter than what the company did in the whole quarter last year--could be artificially lifting the stock. 

BTIG analyst Peter Salah put it another way, telling Bloomberg News that Starbucks is "priced to perfection," meaning anything short of perfect will cause shares to fall. Starbucks is trading at 30 times its earnings over the next 12 months, compared to an average multiple of 21 for its peers, according to Bloomberg. 

But the jitters among Starbucks investors could arise from a deeper fear -- namely, whether we're heading into another global recession. Lower-than-expected sales in Starbucks' Asia Pacific and Europe, Middle East and Africa divisions helped stoke anxiety that slowing economies across the world could be bleeding into U.S.-based companies.

Tempered forecasts for the rest of the year in those regions didn't help calm the panic, despite cheerful proclamations by Starbucks CEO  Howard Schultz that "China is here to stay" and that the company is on track to have 3,400 stores in mainland China by 2019, up from 2,000 stores today.

"Those people focused on a 1 percent interpretation of a downturn in China are misinterpreting the information," Schultz told CNBC on Friday. "Anyone who believes there's a softening of our forecast is ridiculous." 

In the past 20 years, Starbucks' same-store sales have fallen only in two years: 2008 and 2009, when the recession forced customers to trade down from their pricey skinny vanilla lattes to home-brewed coffee. So any suggestion Starbucks could be heading in that direction again just brews extra angst.

But as Gadfly's Nir Kaissar writes, this isn't 2008. And just because the stock market is losing it, doesn't mean Starbucks is, too. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Shelly Banjo in New York at sbanjo@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Gongloff at mgongloff1@bloomberg.net