Categories Consumer, Earnings Call Transcripts, Retail

AutoZone, Inc. (AZO) Q1 2022 Earnings Call Transcript

AZO Earnings Call - Final Transcript

AutoZone, Inc. (NYSE: AZO) Q1 2022 earnings call dated Dec. 07, 2021

Corporate Participants:

Brian Campbell — Vice President, Treasurer, Investor Relations & Tax

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Jamere Jackson — Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President – Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfaction

Analysts:

Bret Jordan — Jefferies Securities — Analyst

Simeon Gutman — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Michael Lasser — UBS — Analyst

Zachary Fadem — Wells Fargo Securities — Analyst

Chris Horvers — J.P. Morgan — Analyst

Brian Nagel — Oppenheimer — Analyst

Presentation:

Operator

Good day, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to AutoZone’s 2022 Q1 Earnings Release Conference Call. [Operator Instructions]

Before we begin, the company would like to read some forward-looking statements.

Brian Campbell — Vice President, Treasurer, Investor Relations & Tax

Before we begin, please note that today’s call includes forward-looking statements that are subject to the Safe Harbor provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future performance. Please refer to this morning’s press release and the company’s most recent annual report on Form 10-K and other filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission for a discussion of important risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from expectations. Forward-looking statements speak only as of the date made, and the company undertakes no obligation to update such statements. Today’s call will also include certain non-GAAP measures, a reconciliation of non-GAAP to GAAP financial measures can be found in our press release.

Operator

It is now my pleasure to turn the floor over to your host, Bill Rhodes, Chairman, President and CEO. Sir, the floor is yours.

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Good morning, and thank you for joining us today for AutoZone’s 2022 first quarter conference call. With me today are Jamere Jackson, Executive Vice President, Chief Financial Officer; and Brian Campbell, Vice President, Treasurer, Investor Relations and Tax.

Regarding the first quarter, hope you had an opportunity to read our press release and learn about the quarter’s results. If not, the press release, along with slides complementing our comments today, are available on our website www.autozone.com under the Investor Relations link. Please click on Quarterly Earnings Conference Calls to see them.

As we begin, we want to continue to stress that our highest priority remains the safety and well being of our customers and AutoZoners. Everyone across the organization takes this responsibility very, very seriously, and I am very proud of how our team has responded. Since the start of the pandemic, we have reiterated consistently that we could not deliver the kind of results we have without the exceptional efforts of our entire team, especially our store and supply chain AutoZoners. As our sales volumes have remained at historic all time highs, our AutoZoners continue to go the extra mile and surprise and delight our customers by providing WOW Customer Service, regardless of the myriad of challenges that are thrown their way.

As part of saying thank you to our AutoZoners, this past quarter, the company committed $9 million to the AutoZoner Assistance Fund. The Assistance Fund is an independent non-profit whose primary mission is to provide assistance to AutoZoners who find themselves in a very difficult place. We are very fortunate to be able to help our AutoZoners in this way. To me it’s yet another example of our organization living consistent with our values. We can’t thank our team of roughly 105,000 AutoZoners enough for all they do for our customers, each other, our communities, and ultimately, our shareholders.

This morning, we will review our overall same-store sales, DIY versus DIFM trends, our sales cadence over the 12 weeks of the quarter, merchandise categories that drove our performance and any regional discrepancies. We’ll also share how inflation is affecting our cost and retails and how we think they will impact our business for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Okay. On to our sales results. Our domestic same-store sales were an impressive 13.6% this quarter on top of last year’s very strong 12.3%. Our team once again executed at an extraordinarily high level and delivered amazing results. Congratulations again to AutoZoners everywhere. Our growth rates for retail and commercial were both strong with domestic commercial growth impressively north of 29%. Commercial set a first quarter record with $900 million in sales. I was reflecting on that this morning remembering back to the day that we correct $1 billion in commercial sales for a full year. And now we’ve delivered $900 million in sales in one quarter, an incredible accomplishment.

On a trailing four quarter basis, we had over $3.5 billion in annual commercial sales versus $2.8 billion a year ago, up 27%. We also set a record in average weekly sales per store for any quarter, reaching over $14,400 versus $11,500 just last year. On a two year basis, our sales accelerated from last quarter, exceeding 40%.

Many people want to understand what is driving our tremendous sales growth in commercial. In short, it is not one thing, and I want to repeat that. It is not one thing. It’s a host, a whole host of key initiatives we’ve been working on for several years. Those initiatives include improved satellite store availability, massive improvements in hub and mega hub coverage and access, the continuing strength of the Duralast brand, leveraging technology to make us easier to do business with and amplifying our execution strength to improve delivery times, enhancing our sales force effectiveness and engaging our store operations team deeper in the business and ensuring that we live consistent with our pledge by being priced right for the value proposition that we deliver.

We continue to execute very well in commercial, and we are extremely proud of our team and their performance. We’re also very proud of our organization’s performance in domestic DIY. We ran a 9% comp this quarter on top of last year’s 12.7%. While our DIY two year stack comp decelerated slightly from our fourth quarter, it’s remarkable to reflect on a more than 20% two year comp in this sector of our business.

From the data we have available to us, we continue to not only retain the enormous 10% share gains we built during the initial stages of the pandemic, but modestly build on those gains. Our performance, considering the amount of time from the last stimulus and the ending of the enhanced unemployment benefits, has substantially exceeded our expectations and raises our expectations on how sustainable these sales gains may be long-term.

Now let’s focus on our sales cadence. Same-store sales increased sequentially from September through November. However, this acceleration could be deceiving as last year’s comp weakened as the quarter progressed. Given the dynamics of the past 20 months, we like others who benefited from the pandemic, believe it is more instructive to look at two year stacked comps. On this basis, the monthly results were almost identical and very, very stable. For Q1, our two year comp was 25.8% and the four week periods of the quarter increased by 26.3%, 26.0% and 25.3% respectively.

Regarding weather, we experienced warmer than usual weather in the Northeastern United States, while the remainder of the country experienced normal trends. Overall, we feel weather did not play a material role in our sales results for the quarter. As we look forward to the winter months, we are encouraged to see forecast estimating a slightly colder than usual winter. Historically, extreme weather, be that hot or cold, helps drive parts failure.

Regarding this quarter’s traffic versus ticket growth in retail, our traffic was up 1%, while our ticket was up 7.5%. This low-single-digit transaction count growth continues to be a meaningful acceleration from pre-pandemic levels, although it decelerated versus last year as expected due to the elimination of stimulus, the reduce — the elimination of enhanced unemployment, stay at home orders and the closure of some big box retail automotive service departments last year. In our commercial business, we saw most of the sales growth come from transaction growth from new and existing customers. It was encouraging for us to see sales trends remain strong. And we continue to be pleased with the momentum we are seeing in both domestic businesses heading into the winter months.

During the quarter, there were some geographic regions that did better than others, as there always are. While last quarter we saw roughly 400 basis point gap in comp performance between the Northeast and Midwestern markets versus the remainder of the country, we did not see that gap this quarter. In fact, the Northeastern Midwestern markets slightly outperformed. The market share data suggests that we continue to gain share in most markets across the country.

Now let’s move into more specifics on performance for the quarter. Our same-store sales were up 13.6% versus last year’s first quarter. Our net income was $555 million. And our EPS was $25.69 a share, increasing an impressive 38.1%. Regarding our merchandise categories in the retail business, our sales floor and hard parts categories grew at a similar rate this quarter. As Americans get back to driving more, we’ve seen maintenance and failure-related categories perform well. We’ve been especially pleased with our growth rates in select failure-related businesses, like batteries, that have successfully lapped very strong performance last year. We believe our hard parts business will continue to strengthen as our customers drive more.

Let me also address what we are seeing from inflation and pricing. This quarter, we saw our sales impacted positively by about 4% year-over-year from inflation, while our cost of goods was up about 2% on a like-for-like basis. We believe both numbers will be higher in the second quarter as cost increases in many key merchandise categories continue to work their way through the system. We could see mid-single-digit inflation in retails as rising raw material pricing, labor and transportation costs are all impacting us and our suppliers. We have no way to say how long this will last, but our industry has been disciplined about pricing for decades, and we expect that to continue.

While we continue to be encouraged with the current sales environment, it remains difficult to forecast near to mid-term sales. What I will say is that the past three quarter sales have all been consistent on a two year stack comp basis and both our DIY and commercial businesses have been remarkably resilient. While it’s difficult to predict absolute sales levels, we are excited about our growth initiatives, our execution and the tremendous share gains we have achieved in both sectors and are maintaining and/or continuing to grow those gains.

Currently, the macro environment, while more uncertain than normal, is certainly favorable for our industry. And if these near-term trends fade, we believe that we are in an industry that is positioned for solid growth over the long-term. For FY ’22, our sales performance will be led by the continued strength in our commercial business as we continue executing on our differentiating initiatives. As we progress through the year, we will as always be transparent about what we are seeing and provide color on our markets and outlooks as trends emerge.

Now I’d like to turn the call over to Jamere Jackson. Jamere?

Jamere Jackson — Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President – Finance and Store Development, Customer Satis

Thanks, Bill. Good morning, everyone. As Bill mentioned, we had a strong second quarter. Our growth initiatives continue to deliver strong results. And the efforts of our AutoZoners in our stores and distribution centers have enabled us to take advantage of robust market conditions. To start this morning, let me take a few minutes to elaborate on the specifics in our P&L for Q1. For the quarter, total auto part sales, which includes our domestic, Mexico and Brazil stores, were $3.6 billion, up 16.2%.

Let me give a little more color on sales and our growth initiatives. Starting with our commercial business, for the first quarter, our domestic DIFM sales increased 29.4% to $900 million and were up 41% on a two year stack basis. Sales to our DIFM customers represented 25% of our total sales. And our weekly sales per program were $14,400, up 25% as we averaged $75 million in total weekly commercial sales. Once again, our growth was broad-based as national and local accounts both grew over 25% in the quarter.

Our execution of our commercial acceleration initiatives is delivering exceptional results as we focus on building a faster growing business. The disciplined investments we are making are helping us grow share. And we’re making tremendous progress in growing our business in this highly fragmented portion of the market. We now have our commercial program in approximately 86% of our domestic stores, and we’re focused on building our business with national, regional and local accounts. This quarter, we opened 32 net new programs, finishing with 5,211 total programs. We continue to leverage our DIY infrastructure and increase our share of wallet with existing customers.

As I said on last quarter’s call, in fiscal year ’22, commercial growth will lead the way, and our first quarter results reflect this dynamics. Our growth strategies continue to work as we continue to grow share. We are confident in our strategies and execution and believe we will continue gaining share. Delivering quality parts, particularly with our Duralast brand, improved assortments, competitive pricing and providing exceptional service has enabled us to drive double-digit sales growth for the past six quarters. Our core initiatives are accelerating our growth and position us well in the marketplace. And notably, our mega hub strategy is driving strong performance and position us for an even brighter future in our commercial and retail businesses.

Let me add a little more color on our progress. As I mentioned last quarter, our mega hub strategy is giving us tremendous momentum, and we’re doubling down. We now have 62 mega hub locations and we expect to open approximately 16 more over the remainder of the fiscal year. As a reminder, our mega hubs typically carry roughly 100,000 SKUs and drive tremendous sales lift inside the store box as well as serve as a fulfillment source for other stores.

The expansion of coverage and parts availability continues to deliver meaningful sales lift to both our commercial and DIY businesses, and we are testing greater density of mega hubs to drive even stronger sales results. By leveraging sophisticated predictive analytics and machine learning, we are expanding our market reach driving closer proximity to our customers and improving our product availability and delivery times. These assets continue to outperform our expectation, and we would expect to open significantly more than 110 locations we have previously targeted.

In commercial, we are building a meaningful competitive advantage and we continue to have confidence in our ability to create a faster growing business. On the retail side of our business, our domestic retail business was up 9% and up 21.4% on a two year stack. The business has been remarkably resilient as we have gained and maintained over three points of market share since the start of the pandemic.

As Bill mentioned, we saw an increase in traffic versus the prior year as our initiatives are continuing to drive tremendous sales and share growth along with a relentless focus on execution by our AutoZoners in our stores and distribution centers. These initiatives include improving the customer shopping experience, expanding assortment, leveraging our hub and mega hub network and maintaining competitive pricing. These dynamics along with favorable macro trends and miles driven, a growing car park and a challenging new and used car sales market for our customers have continue to fuel sales momentum in DIY. And the execution of our AutoZoners who are taking care of our customers gives us a key competitive advantage.

I’m also very pleased with the competitive position of our DIY business and our outlook going forward. Our in-stock positions, while still below where we would like for them to be, are continuing to improve as our supply chain and merchandising teams have made great progress in a challenging supply chain environment. We’ve been able to navigate supply and logistics constraints and have product available to meet our customers’ needs. DIY has been a strong contributor to the growth of our company. And while comps are difficult because of our strong past performance, the fundamentals of our business remained strong.

Now I’ll say a few words regarding our international business. We continue to be pleased with the progress we’re making in Mexico and Brazil. During the quarter, we opened two new stores in Mexico to finish with 666 stores and one new store in Brazil to finish with 53. On a constant currency basis, we saw accelerated sales growth in both countries. We remain committed to our store opening schedules in both markets and expect both to be significant contributors to sales and earnings growth in the future. With approximately 10% of our store base now outside the U.S. and our commitment to continue expansion in a disciplined way, international growth will be an attractive and meaningful contributor to AutoZone’s future growth.

Now let me spend a few minutes on the P&L and gross margins. For the quarter, our gross margin was down 65 basis points, driven primarily by the accelerated growth in our commercial business where the shift in mix coupled with the investments in our initiatives drove margin pressure, but increased our gross profit dollars by 14.9%. I mentioned on last quarter’s call that we expected to have our gross margin down in a similar range this quarter as we saw in the fourth quarter of last fiscal year where we were down 82 basis points. However, the team has been focused on driving margin improvements, primarily through pricing actions that offset inflation to drive a better than expected outcome.

As Bill mentioned earlier in the call, we are continuing to see cost inflation in certain product categories along with rising transportation and distribution center costs. We continue to take pricing actions to offset inflation, and consistent with prior inflationary cycles, the industry pricing remains rational. We would expect our margins in the second quarter to be down in a similar range as the first quarter.

All of the actions we are taking have resulted in us growing our DIY and DIFM businesses at a significantly faster rate than the overall market, and we’re committed to capturing our fair share while improving our competitive positioning in a disciplined way. We are laser focused on taking care of our existing customers, driving new customers to AutoZone and over time growing absolute gross profit dollars at a faster than historic rate.

Moving to operating expenses. Our expenses were up 10.4% versus last year’s Q1 as SG&A as a percentage of sales leverage of 171 basis points. The leverage was driven primarily by our strong sales results. While our SG&A dollar growth rate has been higher than historical averages, we’ve been focused on maintaining high levels of customer service during a period of accelerated growth and taking care of our AutoZoners during these extraordinary high sales growth times. We’re also investing in IT to underpin our growth initiatives. And these investments will pay dividends and user experience, speed and productivity. We will continue to be disciplined on SG&A growth as we move forward and manage expenses in line with sales growth over time.

Moving to the rest of the P&L. EBIT for the quarter was $754 million, up 22.6% versus the prior year’s quarter, driven by strong top-line growth. Interest expense for the quarter was $43.3 million, down 6.3% from Q1 a year ago as our debt outstanding at the end of the quarter was just under $5.3 billion versus just over $5.5 billion last year. We’re planning interest in the $45 million range for the second quarter of fiscal 2022 versus $46 million in last year’s second quarter. For the quarter, our tax rate was 21.9% versus 22.2% in last year’s first quarter. This quarter’s rate benefited 159 basis points from stock options exercised, while last year it benefited 134 basis points. For the second quarter of fiscal 2022, we suggest investors model us at approximately 23.6% before any assumption on credits due to stock option exercises.

Moving to net income and EPS. Net income for the quarter was $555 million, up 25.5% versus last year’s first quarter. Our diluted share count of 21.6 million was lower by 9.1% from last year’s first quarter. The combination of higher earnings and lower share count drove earnings per share for the quarter to $25.69, up 38.1% over the prior year’s first quarter.

Now let me talk about our cash flow. For the first quarter, we generated approximately $800 million of operating cash flow. Our operating cash flow results continue to benefit from the strong sales and earnings previously discussed. You should expect us to be an incredibly strong cash flow generator going forward. And we remain committed to returning meaningful amounts of cash to our shareholders.

Regarding our balance sheet, we now have nearly $1 billion in cash on the balance sheet and our liquidity position remains strong. We’re also managing our inventory well, as our inventory per store was up 10% versus Q1 last year. Total inventory increased 3% over the same period last year, driven by new stores. Net inventory, defined as merchandise inventories less accounts payable on a per store basis, was a negative $207,000 versus negative $99,000 last year and negative $203,000 last quarter. As a result, accounts payable as a percent of gross inventory finished the quarter at 129.4% versus last year’s Q1 of 114.1%.

Lastly, I’ll spend a moment on capital allocation and our share repurchase program. We repurchased $900 million of AutoZone’s stock in the quarter. As of the end of the fiscal quarter, we had approximately 20.7 million shares outstanding. At quarter end, we had just over $1 billion remaining under our share buyback authorization and just under $700 million of excess cash. The powerful free cash we’ve generated this quarter allowed us to buy back approximately 2.5% of the shares outstanding at the beginning of the quarter.

We bought back over 90% of the shares outstanding of our stock since our buy back inception in 1998, while investing in our existing assets and growing our business. We remain committed to this disciplined capital allocation approach. We expect to maintain our long-term leverage target in the 2.5 times area and generate powerful free cash flows that will enable us to invest in the business and return meaningful amounts of cash to shareholders.

To wrap up, we had another very strong quarter, highlighted by strong comp sales, which drove a 25.5% increase in net income and a 38.1% increase in EPS. We are driving long-term shareholder value by investing in our growth initiatives, driving robust earnings in cash and returning excess cash to our shareholders. Our strategy is working. And I have tremendous confidence in our ability to drive significant and ongoing value for our shareholders.

Now I will turn it back to Bill.

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Thank you, Jamere. Fiscal 2022 is off to a stellar start, and we continue to be focused on superior customer service and flawless execution. That and our culture is what defines us. From July 4, 1979 when our first store opened in Forest City, Arkansas, customer service has been paramount to our success. At the end of the day, it is why customers come back to us. Whether they are a seasoned professional or a new DIYer, they trust us. They trust us to help them with their needs.

We continue to be bullish on our industry, and in particular, on our own opportunities for the new year. We believe the macro backdrop is in our favor for the foreseeable future. Our customers across the Americas want to get out, get out and drive,. and we’ll be there when they need helpful advice. Our team has worked diligently and collaboratively with our suppliers, and together they have done a very good job dealing with the enormous supply chain challenges that exist for all retailers. While we are not where we’d like to be on our store in-stock levels, we believe we are better than most retailers, and I think our results support that belief.

For the remainder of fiscal 2022, we are launching some very exciting initiatives. We are focused on further growing share, but as always, doing so on a very profitable basis. We will be announcing significant expansions to our supply chain to fuel the growth of our domestic and Mexico businesses. We are also targeting to open 16 more new domestic mega hubs in the U.S. that will enhance our availability and support growth in our retail and commercial businesses. We will also be leveraging our hub and mega hub strategy further in Mexico. For the fiscal year, we will open more than 200 new stores throughout the Americas with notable acceleration in our Brazil business. These capacity expansion investments reflect our bullishness on our industry and our growth prospects. We are being disciplined yet aggressive.

Before we move to open up the call for questions, I want to take a moment, a moment to give special thanks to Mark Finetone, our Executive Vice President, Strategy and Innovation, Customer Satisfaction, on his upcoming retirement in early calendar 2022. Our company, our customers, our leadership team, and in particular, our AutoZoners have greatly benefited from Mark’s 19 years of remarkable service. Mark spent the majority of his years with AutoZone leading our merchandising team and has played a critical role leading our supply chain and marketing teams in recent years. He leaves our organization much, much better than he founded and leaves us well positioned for accelerated growth. We thank Mark for his amazing service and leadership with the company and we wish he and his wife Cindy well in they’re well deserved retirement.

I also want to reiterate how proud I am of our team across the board for their commitment to servicing our customers, and doing so in a very safe manner. First and foremost, our focus will be on keeping our AutoZoners and customers safe, while providing our customers with their automotive needs. And secondly, we must continuously challenge ourselves during these extraordinary times to position our company for even greater future success. We know that investors will ultimately measure us by what our future cash flows look like three to five years from now. And we, we very much welcome that challenge. I continue to be bullish on our industry, and in particular, on AutoZone.

Now we’d like to open up the call for questions.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

Thank you. [Operator Instructions] Our first question today is coming from Bret Jordan at Jefferies. Your line is live. You may begin.

Bret Jordan — Jefferies Securities — Analyst

Hey, good morning, guys.

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Good morning, Bret.

Jamere Jackson — Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President – Finance and Store Development, Customer Satis

Good morning.

Bret Jordan — Jefferies Securities — Analyst

Hey, on the commercial comp, it really seems like the super hubs are a tailwind. Do you have any color as to how the comps are for stores that are serviced by a super hub versus those that are not and maybe the benefit we might get as you roll out more super hubs?

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yeah, Bret. It’s really hard to tease that out, and I’ve spent considerable time in our prepared remarks talking about. I think a lot of people think that this success that we’re seeing in commercial is either driven by the mega hubs or driven by pricing. And frankly, that’s not what we believe. We talked about it about four years ago that we are launching a new strategic plan or developing a new strategic plan for our commercial business, and it has a whole host developments, mega hubs is a critical part of it. But don’t forget, we also refreshed the assortments in every single AutoZone store in the United States and put those assortments commercial leaning forward. But the mega hubs are helping us a tremendous amount, but so is the Duralast brand, so is our sales floor, so is our engagement of our store managers and district managers.

We see the mega hubs in and of themselves perform exceptionally well. They continue to exceed our expectations. And as we’ve said, we’re going to go to 100 to 110. I think we’ve also said that Jamere and I and the senior leadership team believe once we’re finished, we’ll be closer to 200 mega hubs than we will be 100 mega hubs, but that’s a vision at this point in time, not a plan.

Bret Jordan — Jefferies Securities — Analyst

Okay. And then my follow-up, I guess, you talked about share gain and that your in-stocks were better than most. Do you have any feeling for where you’re retaining your share against smaller WDs, against the big box or sort of your major aftermarket peers? Do you have a feeling, sort of buckets of where your share gain came from and where you’re holding it best?

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yeah. I think it’s a tale of two stories, right? On the DIY side of the business, clearly, there were some significant share gains that happened in the depths of the pandemic and the stay at home orders where we did pick up a lot of share from mass retailers. We anticipated that we would have a pretty good headwind starting in last August, but that simply hasn’t manifested itself. And I think what’s happened is customers that were coming to us before, experienced us during the midst of this crisis and really enjoyed their experience. Our team did a great job. So I think it’s still coming from those more mass oriented and the retail side of the business.

On the commercial side of the business, we believe it’s likely coming from the smaller players, you mentioned, WDs. But I think over time what happened was a lot of people when the sales went down in our industry by about 25% overnight, a lot of people in our industry pulled back considerably. Some people furloughed people, they laid off people, they took their order — inventory orders down significantly. We certainly took some actions. We never furloughed one person. We never terminated one person because of the pandemic, in fact, we gave them two extra weeks of vacation we called emergency time off.

And so when all of a sudden the business rebounded very quickly, we were in a terrific place. And I think that gave us trial in the commercial business with a lot of folks that we might not have gotten trial as quick as we did otherwise. And when we were there for those customers, I think that they appreciated the whole host of offerings that we had, and we’ve continued to grow since then. I mean, to be up 40% on a two year basis is really astounding. And to be up 29% in this quarter alone, I just couldn’t be more pleased of what our team has done, and we believe this is just the beginning. We’ve talked about the importance of the commercial business for a long time. And we’re still the fourth in market share and that’s not where we want to be, and I’m excited about what’s in front of us.

Bret Jordan — Jefferies Securities — Analyst

Great. Thank you.

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Thank you, Bret.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question today is coming from Simeon Gutman at Morgan Stanley. Your line is live. You may begin.

Simeon Gutman — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Good morning, everyone. Not sure if Mark is in the room, but congratulations to him. My first question, Bill, is on the demand environment. There was a lot of buzz, a positive at Apex this year, probably more than it’s ever been, I’m curious if you share the optimism? Is there anything unique about this moment, whether it’s used cars? Why the demand environment could be above average for the foreseeable future?

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yeah. Thank you for your shout out to Mark, Simeon. He has been just a tremendous partner to all of us for all these years. And I think about the AutoZone that Mark inherited versus the AutoZone that he leaves to the rest of us, and it’s a very different place and he played an enormous role in that, as did so many others. But thank you for that.

I share your thoughts, Simeon. At Apex, there was a different vibe than probably we’ve ever seen before. I was kind of hoping everybody would be down and out, because I knew how our sales were performing. I hope we were doing very different than everyone else. I think it’s just a great reminder of the strength of this industry. If you think about this industry over a very long period of time, I just celebrated my 27th anniversary with AutoZone, seen a lot of different cycles.

One of the things that has happened, the strongest performing periods in our last 30 years have been ’93, ’94, ’01, ’02, ’09, ’10 and ’11 that is before the pandemic. The pandemic has blown away those performance. In each one of those environments, you’ve seen AutoZone’s performance may be more than the industry, but the industry also make a step function change up, significant growth in the midst of a recession. What has been remarkable is, in each of those times, you’ve never seen the industry or our sales take a step back down, not even partially back down towards it. It’s as if we reached a new plateau and we just stayed there until we built again.

I think my expectation with the pandemic and the amount of sales that we saw, particularly in the retail business from the depths of the stay at home orders and all those things was, we would see somewhat a reversion to the mean. And here we sit today, it’s December, the last stimulus happened March 15, the enhanced unemployment ended at the end of August, first of September, and we would have thought we would have seen some deceleration, which we have not seen.

Our business — on both sides of the business, a 9% comp in DIY is remarkable. And so we’ll be interested to see how long it holds at this level. I wish we had a crystal ball and could tell you, but I know that this organization is focused on how do we optimize our performance in the midst of whatever sales environment we have. How do we make sure we’re taking care of customers, how do we make sure that we’re keeping AutoZoners and customers safe and how do we make the P&L work and maximize our performance, and I think we’ve done a really good job of that. I’m very proud of the organization so far.

Simeon Gutman — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Okay. Thanks for that. And then my follow-up, I’m not sure if it’s for you or Jamere, on the gross margin side. If commercial comps and DIY comps end up growing at a similar amount, and I realize that that may not happen, but if they do, what happens to gross margin? We’re trying to isolate, I guess, the mix shift and maybe — how much investment is happening in the business.

Jamere Jackson — Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President – Finance and Store Development, Customer Satis

Yeah. So if you think about gross margins, first of all, I’ll say this, we’ve been seeing cost inflation in certain categories and higher transportation costs. However, the industry pricing has been rational and we’re pricing to recover inflationary impacts as we’ve done in the past. And as Bill mentioned, from a retail pricing standpoint, we raise retails in the sort of mid-single-digit range. The industry has been disciplined and rational. And quite frankly, inflation has been our friend in terms of retail pricing.

But I will remind you, as you’ve highlighted here, is that our commercial business will be a mixed drag. And right now, we are significantly outpacing DIY growth on the commercial side of the business. And so that’s been a margin drag. In fact, all of the margin drag in this quarter can be attributed to that acceleration that we have in our commercial business. So going forward, it will be a drag on the business, but that will be good for us as a business because we will see our gross profit dollars growing, which is exactly what we’re shooting for. So we like where we are. We’re going to continue to lean into the strategy. You will see a little bit of a drag from a margin standpoint from commercial mix. But net-net, it will be good for our business in total.

Simeon Gutman — Morgan Stanley — Analyst

Thanks, everyone. Happy holidays.

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yeah, you too, Simeon. Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question today is coming from Michael Lasser at UBS. Your line is live. You may begin.

Michael Lasser — UBS — Analyst

Good morning. Thanks a lot for taking my question. Bill, you mentioned at this point in the cycle the perception was that the DIY business was going to be comping negative. As you pointed out, it comped at 9% in the quarter with a little less than half of it likely coming from price increases. So why has it not flowed otherwise? The perception early in the pandemic was that the marginal or incremental customer was that more affluent consumer who is working from home had more time on their hand, is doing some work on their car as a result. Is that still the incremental customer or has it evolved given some of the underlying dynamics like fewer new car sales, stimulus or other factors?

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yeah. Fantastic question, Michael. I wish I could tell you with certainty. It was built by X, Y and Z. Let me just share some of our thoughts, but our thoughts are evolving and we don’t have clear insights into the strength of it, which we are tickled to death to have, but we can’t explain every element of it.

Clearly an element right now is increased inflation. So our traffic count is positive, slightly positive in the retail business, normally because of changes in technology and the improvement of quality of parts. We’ve typically had 3%, 3.5% deceleration in transaction count. So despite the enormous customer count growth we had last year, we’re still growing customers and growing them much faster than we have, let’s say, on average over the last 10 years. But we also have an inflation benefit that’s, call it, 4% or so on top of that. So that is a significant element.

When we believe — what we believe was the biggest thing that happened to us in the pandemic was we had a lot of what I call our financially fragile customers. Those lower socioeconomic customers that had two things that they don’t typically have. They had time because many of them were furloughed and they had money because they were living off of stimulus and significant enhanced unemployment. We anticipated as those two things ended in March 15 of ’21 and early September of ’21 on enhanced unemployment that we would see it slow down.

I think there are some other dynamics that are happening, you mentioned new and used car sales. One of the things that we believe has happened in the recessions over the years is people change their perspective on how long they’re going to keep their car. And so they focus on how they maintain it right versus thinking they’re going to get a new car in six months, so don’t worry about it. I think this environment of new car shortages and used car prices being up, I think the last time I saw something like 38%. I think people, in particular, our more challenged economically customers are thinking I’m going to have this car for a long time, I better take care of it.

And I think that also all levels of consumer appear to still be very, very healthy financially versus historical norms. And as we’ve seen for years, any period where there is a tax refund or something, we see a big spike in our business. Stimulus, we saw big spikes in our business. So I think the fact that they still have more discretionary income than normal, bodes well for our business, it’s showing up in our results and likely stays with us fore some period of time. How long? Your guess is as good as mine.

Michael Lasser — UBS — Analyst

Well, my guess isn’t that good. So I’m sure you’ll do a bit better, but my follow-up…

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Mine hasn’t been very good either.

Michael Lasser — UBS — Analyst

My follow-up question is on one of the key debates on your investment case right now is what does the algorithm look like moving forward. Historically, AutoZone’s algorithm have been modest new store growth, 2% to 4% comp, stable margins and healthy share repurchases to deliver double-digit EPS growth. Jamere made the point that you’re building a faster growing business. So does the algorithm change moving forward, especially if commercial sustain its recent increases and puts pressure on your gross margin? Would you be willing to accept a formula over the long run where you have slightly higher same-store sales growth even if that meant about the same gross profit dollar growth that you’ve had historically because it comes with gross margin pressure over the longer run? And as part of that, I think Jamere mentioned that COGS inflation is 2%, price increases were 4%, so you saw a gross margin benefit this quarter from that spread. Doesn’t that reverse in the quarters ahead? Thank you.

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yes. Three very complex questions. I think the answers are yes, yes and yes. Let me start and then I’ll let Jamere talk about it as well. Yes, we’ve had a long-term algorithm that says how do we grow store count in the 2% to 3%. How do we grow EBIT growth in the 3% to 5% in normal times and maybe faster in these recessionary environments. How do we leverage our consistent and predictable free cash flow to share — to do share repurchases that push us in and around double-digit EPS growth for a sustained period of time. You remember, Michael, we had I think 41 consecutive quarters of double-digit EPS growth. So that’s still long-term generally the model that we believe.

However, we’ve had the most incredible six straight quarters we’ve ever seen. There could be a deceleration to get us to whatever the new normal is. I would have thought we would have experienced that by now. I feel better about our sustainability of holding on to these significant sales growth over a longer period of time at different levels than I would have thought six and 12 months ago. So we may have a slowdown at some point, but I don’t believe once we get to whatever the new normal is that the algorithm changes any.

You asked would we be willing to grow the commercial business at a faster rate at the expense of gross and operating margin percentages, and I would say an emphatic yes. We are focused on how do we grow gross profit dollars and operating profit dollars at an accelerated rate, while we make sure we get great returns. And I think any organization is running roughly a 40% ROIC, we’ve proven that we know how to leverage our capital structure.

Jamere, anything that you would say differently or do you want to address his last point?

Jamere Jackson — Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President – Finance and Store Development, Customer Satis

No, I think a couple of things stand out to me, and Bill answered your question I think very clearly. Our goal has always been to grow our gross profit dollars. We have the luxury of having in this environment a faster growing business with higher margin dollars overall. And I would argue, this is a more sustainable way to grow cash and ultimately shareholder value.

What doesn’t change about the algorithm is the most important part of the algorithm which is this is a business that is going to generate a tremendous amount of cash that enables us to grow our business and return a significant amount of cash to shareholders over time. So as we’ve gone through this period and we see an opportunity to accelerate the growth in our commercial business by creating a faster growing business overall, it’s ultimately meaning that we’re a more profitable company on a dollar basis and that’s going to lead to more cash and we’re going to grow the business and return a significant chunk of that to shareholders. So long-term, what I’ve been saying is that while the geography changes a little bit, the algorithm at the bottom line doesn’t change. This is a business that generates a ton of cash and has tremendous firepower to grow and return cash to shareholders.

Michael Lasser — UBS — Analyst

And anything to add about the timing between price increases and cost increases?

Jamere Jackson — Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President – Finance and Store Development, Customer Satis

Yeah. So from the standpoint of price increases and cost increases, we’ve been very disciplined about making sure that when we see cost increases coming, we’ve taken retail pricing, sometimes we will take those in anticipation of those cost increases. There is usually a catch-up over time. But what I will say to you is that this is a pretty dynamic market and that there are always pricing opportunities and cost increases that are coming our way.

Our teams have done a tremendous job of managing this mix such that we’ve historically found ways to have margin accretion when we go through this environment. And the most important part of that is that this is an industry that has been disciplined and rational, and we expect this to continue. So we don’t expect ultimately for the cost increases to be a margin drag over the business. We’ve done a fantastic job of managing that dynamic in the past and we’ll continue to do so in the future.

Michael Lasser — UBS — Analyst

Thank you very much. Best of luck to Mark, and have a good holiday season.

Jamere Jackson — Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President – Finance and Store Development, Customer Satis

Thanks.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question today is coming from Zack Fadem at Wells Fargo. Your line is live. You may begin.

Zachary Fadem — Wells Fargo Securities — Analyst

Hey, good morning, guys. First I want to follow-up on Michael’s last question. If you look at your business over the last three to four years, your commercial mix has shifted from roughly 20% of your sales mix to now closer to 25%, while your EBIT margins have expanded by about 100 basis points during this time. So the question is, as your business continues to evolve and you start to think about 30% or 35% commercial mix, how does this impact your EBIT margins? And to what extent should we view that 19%, 20% level as sustainable with or without the change in mix?

Jamere Jackson — Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President – Finance and Store Development, Customer Satis

Well, I think a couple of dynamics are associated with that. Number one, the commercial business naturally will be a margin drag for us just based on the nature of the business. But you’ve got to remember, we have a large DIY business that we are continuing to drive efficiencies and margin expansion in that DIY business over time, such that there isn’t a cliff associated with margins over time.

So what you can expect from us is that we’ll continue to push to drive margin expansion in our business overall. Commercial will be a drag, but we’ll continue to work on things from a productivity standpoint. Naturally, you may see some of that impact our EBIT margins, but from a total EBIT dollar standpoint, we’ll be in pretty good shape and it will be a great story. And again, I always come back to this notion that from an earnings standpoint, from a cash standpoint, the most important part of this algorithm is that we are going to have tremendous firepower to grow the business and return a bunch of cash to shareholders.

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Let me jump in on that too, Zack. I think when you look at what’s happened over the last three or four years to margins, you need to make sure that we don’t lose sight of what happened to our DIY business over the last two years. Our same-store sales in DIY are up 20% on a two year basis. We are getting a ton of leverage because of that outside sales growth. Our hope and my hope is that we maintain all of it or certainly a significant amount of it that’s yet to be seen, but that changed the economics of the operating margin in the DIY business.

Our focus, whether it’s 19% or 20%, is to make sure that we’re growing operating profit dollars at a good return. And sometimes, our margin — our operating margin might go down, because I’ve said for many times, if we could double our commercial business at a substantially lower operating margin tomorrow, we would do it, because it doesn’t require a lot of capital and it would grow our operating profit dollars tremendously.

Zachary Fadem — Wells Fargo Securities — Analyst

Got it. That’s helpful. And on the DIY side, obviously a lot of noise out there on the state of the lower income consumer as we move further and further away from stimulus. And considering the uptick in gas prices, food, CPI and just overall broad-based inflation, including your business, could you talk about what you’re seeing out there as it doesn’t seem to be impacting your business at all? Curious how you think about the disconnect there?

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yeah. I’ll first start with you have to remember that our business is generally an inelastic business except for some reason whenever the low-end consumer has excess cash, we see a significant pop in our business. But I’ll go back to what I said earlier, we historically haven’t seen it revert back to the norms. If you look at our business in the quarter, our retail business, our transaction count was meaningfully better than it normally would be.

We are also seeing that we grew share about 10% during the depths of the crisis and we are continuing to modestly grow share on top of that. We would have anticipated we would give some of that back, we’re not. And then you layer in the fact that there is this inflation and that’s probably accelerating our growth by about 4%. We don’t think that there is a lot of elasticity in that inflation at this point in time.

The bigger question is the one that you’re bringing up. If we continue to see significant inflation across the market, does that put more and more pressure on particularly the low-end consumer? And ultimately, do we see a deceleration as a result of that? And I think that’s a logical thesis, but we’ve had a lot of logical thesis during this pandemic that haven’t come to fruition.

Jamere Jackson — Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President – Finance and Store Development, Customer Satis

Yeah. I would just add that that piece of the thesis, if you will, we’re a long way from that being the case. And if you just look at the things that Bill talked about, three things. One, share growth; inflation being our friend; and this favorable macro environment. That’s what gives us a lot of confidence here in the near-term about our business, and we’re continuing to perform very well in this environment against that backdrop.

Zachary Fadem — Wells Fargo Securities — Analyst

Thanks so much, guys. Happy holidays. Congrats to Mark.

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yeah. Thank you very much, Zack. Happy holidays to you too.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question today is coming from Chris Horvers at J.P. Morgan. Your line is live. You may begin.

Chris Horvers — J.P. Morgan — Analyst

Thanks. Good morning, guys. So Bill, you talked a lot about consistency on the monthly basis, on a quarterly basis, on a two year stack basis. But also, historically, you’ve talked a lot about the impact of the business on shifting tax refund timing in different periods. If you held the stock into this next quarter, obviously, that’s a really impressive number, but you will also run into the stimulus payments from January. So I guess, what are your thoughts there? Do you think you saw a lift last year on the DIY side of the business? And do you think that would cause that two year stack to break?

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

It’s a great question, Chris. And I’m very happy that Jamere has not allowed us to reverse our long-term history of not giving guidance. I don’t know the answer to it, right? Yes, we will be going up against the stimulus payment around the first of the year. Yes, we’re going to be something we’ve talked about a lot historically as we’ll be going up against a pretty significant weather event towards the end of our quarter and beginning of the next quarter.

For us, we’re going to maximize our performance and optimize our performance in whatever sales environment we have. We don’t have to change if we thought we were going to be plus 2% or down 2% on a historical basis, we don’t have to change how we operate. And if we lap that stimulus and we have a little bit of a headwind for four weeks, so be it. We’re running this business for the long-term.

As I’ve said in the prepared remarks, the valuation that needs to be placed on this company depends on how our investors, and particularly our long-term investors, feel our cash flow is going to be three to five years from now, and that’s the lens that we’re looking at. If we go through a tough quarter because our business is up 25% from pre-pandemic, so be it. We need to make sure that we’re making the investments today that will allow us to continue to have this amazing cash flow generation for the long-term.

Chris Horvers — J.P. Morgan — Analyst

Got it. Makes sense. And then in terms of the investments that you’re making this year, can you give us some expectation in term of capex and will this create — will the investment cycle or investment program for this year create pressure in opex, like in terms of one might say an appropriate relationship between say top-line growth versus SG&A dollar growth might? How that could be impacted?

Jamere Jackson — Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President – Finance and Store Development, Customer Satis

Yeah. I mean, we’re able to do this within the framework of our long-term financial model, if you will. We will have some accelerated capex this year to build out the initiatives that Bill talked about. But if you look at sort of where we are in terms of our cash-generating capability, the amount of free cash flow that we’ll generate this year, it certainly won’t impact anything that we’re doing from a capital allocation or our ability to return cash to shareholders.

So this is sort of a multi-year investment cycle, if you will. We’ve talked about the capacity investments that we’re making in the supply chain. And I’ve talked about things that we need to do from an IT standpoint. We’ve talked about the growth that we’re going to do in our store base. And we’re able to do that within the framework of our financial model, if you will, without making material changes to the P&L.

Chris Horvers — J.P. Morgan — Analyst

Got it. Thanks very much.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question today is coming from Brian Nagel at Oppenheimer. Your line is live. You may begin.

Brian Nagel — Oppenheimer — Analyst

Hi, good morning. Congrats on another really incredible quarter. Nicely done.

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Thanks, Brian.

Jamere Jackson — Chief Financial Officer and Executive Vice President – Finance and Store Development, Customer Satis

Thanks, Brian.

Brian Nagel — Oppenheimer — Analyst

So the first question I have, I think it goes with the comments you were making, Jamere, in the prepared remarks with regard to supply chain. It sounds like, what you’re saying, AutoZone continues to manage the challenges quite well. The question I have is, as you look at the challenges out there, are you starting to see some of these bottlenecks so to say subsiding? And if you see — is there a path towards — obviously, it’s going to take some time. Is there a path towards supply chain for you improving significantly?

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

It’s a great question, Brian. And I think the answer is, yes, but it’s ever changing. And I want to stop for just a second and really say thank you to our supply chain team and our merchants. You talk about collaboration. These folks have been working unbelievably hard now for 20 months trying to figure out how we deal with this enormous surge in volume. So round numbers, our business is up 25% or more since the pre-pandemic level. Our supply chain, our manufacturers and their supply chains, nobody built for 25% excess capacity that would last for 20 months. Our teams have done a really, really, really good job of managing through it.

That said, we have challenges. Our in-stock levels are not where we want them to be. They haven’t been the whole time and they will go down a little bit and they will come up a little bit, but we’re generally 3% or 4% below the in-stock levels that we want on a weekly basis.

To your point, are we seeing things change that give us optimism about the future. And the answer is, yes, but as soon as we do, we see another part of the supply chain that is more challenged. In a lot of respects, we’re playing a little bit of whack-a-mole. In the beginning, it was particular categories, sandpaper. Now it’s tools and brake rotors. We also back in the summer time, we couldn’t get capacity to get enough container loads from Shanghai to the U.S. Now it’s, can we get them through the ports in the U.S. and our team has done — have been really creative about getting the ships, but now also finding different ports across the country to go to.

So we are seeing it get better, but we are nowhere out of the woods on saying that next month we’re going to be back into it. We are about to face Chinese New Year, which is always a difficult time in any supply chains. It will be interesting to see how we manage to do that. My hope is late spring early summer we get back to some semblance of normality. But every time we thought, okay this one is easing, there has been another part of the supply chain that has shown challenges.

Brian Nagel — Oppenheimer — Analyst

Got it. It’s very, very helpful, Bill. Thank you. My second question I have, I guess, kind of more strategic in nature as well. But we talk about just the sales growth, and the sales growth has been phenomenal. And you look at the stack comps have been extraordinarily resilient here even as the economy has moved away from the pandemic and stimulus — the benefits of stimulus.

So the question I have is, as you think about the business, to the extent that you start seeing signals that maybe this is even — this sales growth is even more sustainable than you initially thought, is there a point in which you would start to invest more aggressively or get back into the business? Well, there are even places you would want to put more money to — more investment to work in the business or say to reinvest as there is sales gains?

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

I think we already have, Brian. I talked in my prepared remarks, we’re going to make the most significant investments that we’ve seen in our supply chain because we’ve seen this surge in volume. I don’t want to spook everybody, our capex is going to be up $100 million, $150 million kind of range over last year, but we’ll have an elevated level in our supply chain for a couple of years.

And as we’ve talked about as a team, I think over the long-term, we’ve optimized our supply chain to the third decimal point. When you’ve been through a surge in volume like we’ve experienced over the last 20 months, that was probably a little penny wise and pound foolish. And so we’re going to be a little bit more aggressive with our supply chain investments.

We’ve clearly made a ton of investments in our commercial business over the last four years from inventory assortments to mega hubs and hubs to investments in the Duralast brand to investments in price, investments in technology. The single largest technology investment we’ve ever made as a company is what underpins this commercial strategy. And we’re beginning to see benefits from it, but we’ve got a ton of benefits left in front of us on the commercial side of the business. So I think we’ve been making investments at an accelerated rate. And when you have the kind of profitability characteristics that we have today, we’re looking at are there other places that we can invest.

I also want to say one place that we’ve invested very aggressively that I don’t think others have done it nearly at the same level is we’ve invested in our people. We’ve invested in our people in accelerated wage rates. We’ve invested in our people and our culture through things like emergency time off. The last time I’ve tallied up what we’d invested from emergency time off, vaccine incentives and those kinds of things, we were in the $135 million range. And then we announced again today that we added $9 million to our AutoZoners Assistance Fund. We believe in times like this, if we’re going to have values that we state it’s imperative that we live consistent with those values and I think we’ve walked that walk very clearly during the pandemic.

Brian Nagel — Oppenheimer — Analyst

Very helpful. Congratulations again to all. Thank you.

William C. Rhodes — Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

All right. Thank you. I appreciate it, Brian. So before we conclude the call, I just want to take a moment to reiterate that we believe our industry is strong and our business model is solid. We’ll take nothing for granted as we understand our customers have alternatives to shopping with us. We will continue to focus on the basics as we strive to optimize shareholder value for the remainder of fiscal 2022. Lastly, we want to wish everyone a happy, healthy and safe holiday season and a very prosperous New Year. Thank you for your time today. Thank you for your interest in AutoZone. Take care.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

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