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Whole Foods shares fall as Goldman downgrades, says 'wellness has gone mass'

Shoppers browse produce at the Whole Foods Market
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Shoppers browse produce at the Whole Foods Market

Shares of Whole Foods dipped Tuesday after Goldman Sachs downgraded the stock to "sell" from "neutral," citing competition from all parts of the grocery industry and online.

"Whole Foods is experiencing a competitive barrage, losing share in its core natural and organic business to a variety of players," Goldman analysts said in a note to clients. "Wellness has gone mass, and it is not coming back, never again to be relegated to niche specialty retailers serving price-insensitive, early adopters."

Shares of the grocery retailer have fallen more than 15 percent year to date, trading down more than 1 percent at $34.18 on Tuesday. Goldman set a $31 price target for WFM, which would be a 10 percent fall from Monday's close.

Goldman is guarded on natural and organic incumbents like Whole Foods, which could be eclipsed by lower-priced, more convenient challengers. Some of these smaller players taking market share include Trader Joe's and The Fresh Market. Costco and Kroger could be the biggest threats to Whole Foods because of a focus on price and quality, the note said.

"The group has raised the competitive bar in natural and organic: a differentiated product offering is no longer sufficient," the Goldman note said.

Analysts said there is still opportunity for store growth, and Whole Foods could double its U.S. footprint with as many as 1,047 stores.

Goldman analysts don't expect growth in earnings, despite its premium multiple. They predicted tough results from existing stores, which may fail to offset profits from new store openings.

"Grocery is a mature, low-growth sector characterized by relentless competition that appears to be intensifying," the note said.

And one veteran player may be ready to get back on top amid this battle for shoppers, according to Goldman. The firm upgraded Kroger to buy from neutral with a $42 12-month price target that implies a 17 percent upside.

"Kroger looks best positioned among publicly traded pure-play grocers," the note said, adding that the company has voiced a commitment to an "economically sustainable e-commerce business."