For years, Jim Cramer tried not to get tied down by one statistic that, for many, determines the value of a retailer's stock: same-store sales growth.
"Periodically I'll say, you know what, that outfit's so good, I'll simply overlook that their same-store sales are faltering. In fact, that chain is so well-run, I'll waive my rules and focus on other metrics, ones that are more touchy-feely — a real good shopping experience — or about items on the come, like affinity programs or new ways to order online," the "Mad Money" host said.
But every time Cramer ignored his discipline and focused on other factors, he was wrong.
In reality, same-store sales growth is the best signal of a retailer's health, which is why Cramer was not sold on Whole Foods' Wednesday night earnings conference call.
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Along with naming five new board members including Cramer-faves like former Foot Locker chief Ken Hicks and Panera Bread founder Ron Shaich, the company touted its big affinity program, and announced cost cuts and a boost in its dividend.
"But how were the Whole Foods comp-stores? Minus 2.8 [percent]. Ouch. Then never mind," Cramer said. "Forget about all those goodies I just checked off. I don't want to buy that stock. That's the pulse. It's the only thing that matters. Or, to put it another way, focusing on those alternative metrics is like asking, 'Other than those same-store sales, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?'"
With activist investor Jana Partners now getting involved in turning around Whole Foods' business, the high-end grocery store chain now has new goals: to push same-store sales growth to 2 percent by 2020.
"All I can say is, if that's their plan, they're going to lose the company by then," Cramer said. "There's no way that Whole Foods can continue to be independent if it has such high sales per square foot and such low same-store sales numbers."
More likely is that Whole Foods will be acquired by another food retailer, which Cramer believes is Jana's true goal, or it will be taken private and re-opened with layers of executive and regional management gone.
At one point on the earnings call, Whole Foods' executives were asked why they boosted the dividend. They explained it was done to achieve a 2 percent yield in order to attract new investors.
"Here's some bad news: there are a couple of ways to get to a 2 percent yield. One is you boost the dividend. Two is you hold the dividend steady and you keep putting up negative comparable store [sales]," Cramer said.
And that is what Whole Foods' leadership still has not grasped, in Cramer's view: that growth, particularly same-store sales growth, is how investors merit the company.
"It doesn't work to rationalize about these numbers not mattering," Cramer argued. "It didn't work for Abercrombie & Fitch. It didn't work for Sears. It didn't work for Sports Authority and it didn't work for Woolworths, W.T. Grants, Gantos, Caldor, Jamesway, I can give you dozens."
Whole Foods' stock may have held steady Wednesday night, but Cramer attributed that to Jana and the market's faith in its plan.
"Jana knows that if management sticks to this timetable, the marketplace just won't allow Whole Foods to stay independent that much longer. So the stock goes up, because it's just too juicy a chance for someone else to come in and fix things if the current leadership doesn't have the smarts or the guts or the heart to do it themselves. Believe me, if they won't, somebody else will," the "Mad Money" host said.
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