Categories Consumer, Earnings Call Transcripts

The Kroger Co (KR) Q2 2021 Earnings Call Transcript

KR Earnings Call - Final Transcript

The Kroger Co  (NYSE: KR) Q2 2021 earnings call dated Sep. 10, 2021

Corporate Participants:

Rob Quast — Head of Investor Relations

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Gary Millerchip — Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Analysts:

Spencer Hanus — Wolfe Research — Analyst

Michael Lasser — UBS — Analyst

Chuck Cerankosky — Northcoast Research — Analyst

Edward Kelly — Wells Fargo Securities, LLC — Analyst

Michael Montani — Evercore ISI — Analyst

Karen Short — Barclays Capital — Analyst

Rupesh Parikh — Oppenheimer — Analyst

Presentation:

Operator

Good day, and welcome to The Kroger Company Second Quarter Earnings Call. [Operator Instructions] Please note this event is being recorded.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Rob Quast, to please go ahead.

Rob Quast — Head of Investor Relations

Thank you, Sarah. Good morning. Thank you for joining us for Kroger second quarter 2021 earnings call. I am excited to be here today and look forward to working with all of you in my new role as Head of Investor Relations. I am joined today by Kroger’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Rodney McMullen; and Chief Financial Officer, Gary Millerchip.

Before we begin, I want to remind you that today’s discussions will include forward-looking statements. We want to caution you that such statements are predictions and actual events or results can differ materially. A detailed discussion of the many factors that we believe may have a material effect on our business on an ongoing basis is contained in our SEC filings. The Kroger Company assumes no obligation to update that information. Our press release and supplemental information regarding the quarter can be found on our website at ir.kroger.com. After our prepared remarks, we look forward to taking your questions.

I will now turn the call over to Rodney.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, Rob, and congratulations on your new role. I would also like to take a minute to thank Rebekah Manis for her service to the IR team. We wish her continued success in her new role as Head of New Geographies for our customer fulfillment centers. Finally, I would like to thank you all for joining us today.

Our associates have done an incredible job operating our stores, pharmacies, supply chain and manufacturing facilities through the COVID environment. Their unending commitment to serving our customers and communities continues to make a difference in Kroger’s second quarter identical sales without fuel, grew 14% on a two-year stacked basis ahead of our internal expectations. We saw triple-digit growth in digital over the same time period and continue to drive cost out of the business through cost saving initiatives and operating — operational efficiencies. We remain confident in our positioning and our ability to deliver consistently attractive total shareholder returns of 8% to 11% over time.

I’d like to spend the next few minutes discussing three key areas. First, customer behavior and how our seamless ecosystem is working. Second, I’ll share examples of how we are leading with Fresh and accelerating with digital. And finally, I will highlight how we continue to live our purpose to feed the human spirit through the associate experience and our work to advance Kroger’s ESG commitments.

Our strategic focus on leading with Fresh and accelerating with digital continues to build momentum across our businesses. As we’ve operated through the pandemic, we’ve recognize that the structural shifts in our customers eating and cooking habits. Customers are responding favorably to our value proposition and are enjoying the convenience of our seamless offerings. Early in the quarter, customers visited stores more frequently and many shifted from online to in-store. This highlights the relevance and convenience of our easily accessible footprint. Towards the end of the quarter as COVID-19 cases increased in many geographies, customers began shifting back to our digital solutions. This further demonstrates the strength of our seamless ecosystem.

Customers can choose how they want to shop. Our job is to be available in every channel so the customer does not have to compromise. Regardless of how they choose to shop, customers are eating more food at home because it’s more affordable, convenient and healthier than other options. While some food at home trends may be transitory, our research suggests those I highlighted are structural, and Kroger is uniquely positioned to address them. Through our assortment of fresh products, world-class digital platform and innovative mill solutions, we will continue to elevate our position as a food authority so that when customers think food, they think Kroger.

We continue to advance our position as a leader in Fresh during the second quarter. We saw positive identical sales in Produce and Floral and Deli Bakery even as we lapped elevated sales in 2020. Our research shows how much our customers love our brands. Sales for both Simple Truth and Private Selection brands were strong as food and food at home trends remained sticky. We continue to innovate within Fresh. For example, our expanded partnerships with Ghost kitchens allow us to offer customers freshly prepared on demand restaurant food. This is especially relevant at a time when many customers are looking for inspiration and 70% of our customers say convenience is important when cooking.

We also announced our 2021 Go Fresh & Local Supplier Accelerator cohort, and are already bringing innovative locally and regionally sourced products to stores across the country and helping many small entrepreneurs achieve their dreams. Earlier this week, Kroger announced our new brand icon, the Fresh Cart icon, brings together the Kroger family of companies are the one unifying visual and reinforces our brand promise, Fresh for Everyone.

We are very proud of our growth in digital, which increased 114% over the last two years, similar to our first quarter growth. We remain on track to deliver against our 2023 digital growth and profitability targets introduced at our 2021 IR Day. While digital sales decreased 13% during the quarter, almost all customers who reduced their online spend during the quarter continued to shop with us in-store, highlighting the power of our ecosystem and our ability to create a meaningful customer experience across all channels. As a short reminder, Kroger has doubled our e-commerce household penetration, increasing the number of our brick and mortar customers that engage with our digital solutions since 2018.

During the quarter, we added over 340,000 new customers to our digital platforms. We continue to expand capacity across our footprint and we reduced wait times for Kroger pickup. As we look ahead, our seamless ecosystem will remain a competitive advantage as we offer what customers need and want in a way that fits into their life, whether it’s shopping in our stores, picking it up at our stores or getting it delivered or shipped directly to their homes.

W continue to enhance our seamless ecosystem. As we shared last quarter, we currently have two customer fulfillment centers open, which are expanding our capabilities in Ohio and allowing us to expand it to the new geographies within Florida. We are happy with the performance thus far and are energized by the volume and growth in both Shed.

In Ohio, our focus has been on involving the customer proposition to maximize opportunities alongside our existing digital solutions. In Florida, we launched delivery savings path, offering customers unlimited deliveries for just $79 per year. We continue to see incredible net promoter scores and our customers tell us they love our friendly, professionally trained drivers, and the refrigerated delivery vans that bring the freshest food directly to their doorsteps. Looking ahead, we remain on track to open six customer fulfillment centers over 2022 and 2023, which will further expand our seamless ecosystem.

Before I share some specifics on how we are using data and personalization to grow the business, I thought it would be helpful to remind you about how our rewards program and how it works. Our rewards programs has been active for over two decades. It captures data from 60 million households at 96% of our sales. Customers clearly see the value of our program, which drive sales and builds loyalty. As an example, nearly 60% of all items in a digital basket were added through our personalization science, highlighting our ability to make meaningful suggestions that surprise and delight customers. Furthermore, when we personalized recommendations for our customers, we can reduce their time to shop by nearly 70%. Overall, one in three people have noted their groceries have gotten more expensive in the past month. Kroger customers benefit from our personalization as we offer a highly relevant savings at a household level, allowing them to further stretch their food dollars.

Our associates continue to deliver a full fresh and friendly customer experience every day, every time, while also supporting our communities through the pandemic. We remain urgently focused on keeping people safe in our stores and facilities. Our teams were recently recognized with the Gold Award for excellence in Human Capital Management from the Brandon Hall Group for our people-centered COVID-19 response. Obviously, we’re especially proud of that recognition.

During the quarter, we introduced new technology to elevate our associate experience. Kroger launched Fresh Start, a new personalized training program to foster greater associate engagement and retention. We also launched our Feed app, which provides associates easy access to company communication and resources from their smartphones. We are incredibly proud that during the quarter we saw an improvement in retention as we strive to be an employer where associates can come for a job and stay for a career.

Now, turning now to the live our purpose. We continue to believe that customers, associates and investors are increasingly choosing where to shop, where to work and where to invest in companies that are taking meaningful steps to improve our communities and work to build a more sustainable planet. We recently published our 2021 ESG report on the Kroger Co.com. It outlines our progress over the last several years. It further outlines our aspiration to further integrate ESG performance and to lines of business and our commitment to creating shared value that benefits all stakeholders.

We imagine a world where everyone is thriving together and Kroger is helping millions of people live healthier, more sustainable lifestyle, protecting and restoring natural resources, and contributing to more responsible and inclusive global systems. One of the many ways we bring our ESG vision to life is through our work that our Kroger Health team has been doing to serve and support our customers and communities through the pandemic.

During the quarter, we worked with Lyft so provide rides to COVID-19 vaccine appointments, teamed up with local sports icon to drive awareness and access in the underserved communities, and we concluded our CommunityImmunity Giveaway. To date, we have provided over 6.7 million doses of the vaccine and continue to drive availability and education. And yesterday, President Biden noted that Kroger is one of three national partners who have agreed to make the rapid COVID tests available to customers at cost for the next 100 days. Kroger is committed to helping people live healthier lives, while safeguarding the communities we serve. Our ESG goals are ambitious and with the team of almost 500,000 dedicated and driven associates, they are also achievable. Since we first introduced our commitment to delivering strong and sustainable total shareholder returns in 2019, our teams have been laser-focused on execution. This focus has resulted in tangible results, allowing us to deliver this quarter and for the long term.

Now I would like to turn it over to Gary to discuss our second quarter financial results. Gary?

Gary Millerchip — Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Thanks, Rodney, and good morning, everyone. Kroger is delivering strong results and continues to build momentum as we execute on our priorities of leading with Fresh and accelerating with digital. During the quarter, adjusted FIFO operating profit grew by a compounded annual growth rate of 23% over 2019, and adjusted EPS grew by a compounded annual growth rate of 35% over the same two-year period. This reflects our disciplined approach to executing our strategy, balancing investments in our associates and customers with strong cost management and accelerating growth in our alternative profits business. It also provides a further proof point of how we are successfully navigating the pandemic and emerging stronger as a business.

I will now provide additional details on our second quarter results. Identical sales without fuel declined 0.6%. On a two-year stack basis, identical sales without fuel increased 14%. Each period during the quarter was stronger than the last and I’m delighted to say we returned to positive identical sales of our fuel during the final period of the quarter. Our digital platform remains a key strength in our model and we were pleased with the triple-digit growth achieved over 2019. We remain on track with our plans to double our digital business by 2023, and would expect continued investments in the customer experience, scaling of new fulfillment centers and several new innovations which we will announce throughout the year to drive future growth. As shared last quarter, we would not expect future digital growth to be linear, especially as we cycle COVID in 2021.

During the quarter, we also made further progress in improving digital profitability as we achieved a record low for the time taken to pick the digital order install and continue to see growth in the media revenue generated on digital transactions. Gross margin was 21.4% of sales for the second quarter. The FIFO gross margin rate excluding fuel decreased 60 basis points compared to the same period last year. This decrease was primarily related to price investments and higher shrink and supply chain costs, partially offset by sourcing benefits and growth in our alternative profit business. On a two-year basis, our FIFO gross margin rate excluding fuel decreased 55 basis points compared to 2019.

Consistent with many retailers, we experienced supply chain constraints and increased warehouse and transportation cost during the quarter. We are actively managing this risk within our business by securing increased capacity and augmenting associate retention programs within our own facilities. We expect supply chain cost to remain elevated in the second half of the year and this is contemplated in our updated guidance.

In the second half of the quarter, we also saw higher inflation in some categories. We are being disciplined in working with suppliers to manage these increases and are passing along higher cost to the customer where it makes sense to do so. While difficult to predict with precision, as we shared last quarter, we believe inflation for the full year will be higher than originally contemplated in our 2021 business plan.

For the second half of 2021, our guidance now assumes inflation of between 2% and 3%. Recognizing recent inflation trends and our outlook for the rest of the year, we recorded a higher LIFO charge for the quarter of $47 million compared to $23 million in the prior year. Further strong operational execution allowed us to leverage operating general and administrative expenses by 76 basis points, excluding fuel and adjustment items in the second quarter. This reflects lower COVID-19 related costs and savings captured through our cost saving initiatives.

On a two-year basis, our OG&A rate excluding fuel and adjustment items decreased by 137 basis points compared to 2019. We continue to see opportunities to streamline processes and leverage technology and remain on track to deliver $1 billion in cost savings during 2021. The traffic and data generated by our seamless ecosystem continues to create a strong flywheel effect for our alternative profit business, which again experienced significant profit growth in the quarter. Media and Kroger Personal Finance continue to lead the way, and we remain on track to achieve the high end of our expected range of $100 million to $150 million of incremental operating profit in 2021.

Fuel is also an important part of our overall value proposition for our customers. Gallons grew in the second quarter by 7% and outpaced market growth. The average retail price of fuel was $3.13 this quarter versus $2.14 in the same quarter last year. Our cents per gallon fuel margin was $0.39 compared to $0.37 in the same quarter in 2020, and fuel was a tailwind to operating profit of $33 million compared to prior year.

Turning now to our financial strategy. We continue to generate strong free cash flow and remain committed to investing in the business to drive sustainable growth, while also returning excess cash to shareholders. We are prioritizing capital investments to support our growth strategy, widen our competitive moats and deliver strong returns.

Capital expenditures year-to-date were down compared to prior year as we carefully navigated the impact of higher project costs and longer project lead times due to a challenging labor market. As we confirmed in guidance today, we are maintaining our range for capital investments excluding mergers, acquisitions and purchases of leased facilities of between $3.4 billion and $3.6 billion, and would currently anticipate coming in at the low end of this range for the year.

During the quarter, Kroger repurchased $349 million of shares and year-to-date has repurchased $751 million of shares. As of the end of the second quarter, $779 million remains outstanding under the current Board authorization announced on June 17, 2021. In June, Kroger also increased the dividend by 17%, marking the 15th consecutive year of dividend increases.

Our proactive approach to investing in our associates over recent years is helping us navigate the challenging labor market. Our strategy continues to focus on investing in compensation plans that reward our associates in ways that are meaningful to them. We are committing to investing $350 million in hourly wage increases for our associates during 2021, in addition to the $800 million we invested in associate wages between 2018 and 2020. Over the same period, we have also taken several opportunities to improve the security of our associates pension benefits. Our average hourly rate is now in excess of $16 an hour and with comprehensive benefits factored in, will be approaching $21 by the end of 2021. We are committed to increasing retail hourly wages sustainably and our long-term financial model fully contemplates continued investments in associate hourly rates.

During the second quarter, we ratified new labor agreements with the UFCW for associates in Atlanta, Michigan, Food 4 Less [Phonetic] and Mid-Atlantic divisions, covering over 34,000 associates. We continue to negotiate contracts with the UFCW for store associates in Houston, Little Rock, Memphis and Portland.

Our financial results continue to be pressured by inefficiencies in health care and pension costs, which most of our competitors do not face. We continue to communicate with our local and international unions, which represent many of our associates about the importance of growing our business in a profitable way, which will help us create more jobs and career opportunities and enhance job security for our associates.

Turning now to our expectations for the second half of 2021. Driven by momentum in our results and sustained trends in food at home, we are raising our full year guidance. We have also narrowed the range of our guidance as we are further into the year and the trends in our business and the broader food at home market become clearer. We now expect identical sales without fuel in the second half of 2021 to be flat to slightly positive, resulting in full-year results of negative 1.5% to negative 1%, and a two-year identical sales stack between 12.6% to 13.1%.

We expect our adjusted net earnings per diluted share to be in the range of $3.25 to $3.35. We expect our adjusted FIFO operating profit to be in the range of $3.9 billion to $4 billion, reflecting a two-year compounded annual growth rate of between 14.% and 15.6%. In conclusion, we are emerging stronger through the pandemic and remain confident in our ability to deliver total shareholder return of 8% to 11% by sustainably growing earnings and using our resilient free cash flow to return excess cash to investors.

And now, I’ll turn it back to Rodney.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you, Gary. The environment we operate in is dynamic and I am so proud of our associates’ ability to meet the challenge and serve our customers, while building for the future. Kroger’s seamless ecosystem is working. This was evident during the quarter as we saw customers seamlessly shift between channels and we continue to see strong digital engagement. We are leveraging technology, innovation and our competitive moats to deliver against the total shareholder return model we introduced in 2019 and reaffirmed in 2021. Kroger will continue to deliver for all stakeholders and position the business for long-term success.

Now, we look forward to your questions.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Our first question comes from Greg Badishkanian with Wolfe Research. Please go ahead.

Spencer Hanus — Wolfe Research — Analyst

Good morning. This is Spencer Hanus on for Greg. Can you guys talk about the comps that you’re seeing quarter-to-date? And think the guidance does imply somewhat of a slowdown on a two-year basis in your second half and then although it’s early, how you can give out comps in 2022? Do you guys get back to your long-term algo next year? Thanks.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, as Gary mentioned in his prepared remarks, the last period of the second quarter we returned the positive identicals and so far in the third quarter we continue to see the trend of positive identicals and our guidance for the balance of the year is positive as well. So we’re very pleased with where we are. We’re pleased with the performance our teams are doing and we’re making progress substantially ahead of where we initially we thought we would be at this point in time on cycling the COVID from last year. As we look toward 2022, Gary, unless you want to get into more of the details, I think the key thing would be what we talked about at our Investor Day in 2021, and that’s our commitment to a TSR model of 8% to 11%, and that’s driven by a combination of sales growth, slight margin improvements and taking free cash flow and returning to our shareholders via dividend and stock buyback, and the some of those together is what will drive the 8% to 11%, and we remain committed to that. And obviously, since we put in place in 2019, we’ve outperformed it. Gary, if you want to add anything.

Gary Millerchip — Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

The only thing I would add, I think you said it very well, Rodney, is we feel really good about the trends in the business, obviously, as we shared on the prepared comments. As you look at the back half of the year, you asked for additional color on how we’re thinking about the trends that we’re seeing there and the guidance. I would say we’re obviously heading into the back half of the year as Rodney mentioned with momentum in the business. We did raise the guidance to now be in that sort of zero to 1% for the back half of the year based on reversing into that from the year-to-date performance and the guidance that we gave for the year. Overall, we’re feeling really good about how we’re executing in the business and seeing that sustained trend in food at home as consumers continue to gravitate towards some of the trends that Rodney talked about, and also obviously we are seeing some return to previous behavior with the Delta variant currently prevalent in the U.S. as well.

That being said, we do still think there are some knowns in the market. If you look at different countries. How long the impact of the Delta variant last, if you like on consumer behavior, we are seeing some consumers return to normal behavior of returning to offices in some cases. And so while we feel really good about our trends and our ability to continue to win with the customer, the back half of the year would be more of an 11% to 12% two years stack based on still some of the uncertainties and unknowns around those elements that we’re still looking to see how they play out. I think the only other thing that I would reinforce on Rodney’s comment is that we do expect as we shared at our Investor Day at the beginning of the year as we come through 2020 and 2021, we expect the overall food at home trends in the market, but also specifically Kroger’s overall sales to come out of 2021 in a much stronger position than we would have been had the pandemic not occurred, and so we believe that will still certainly be true as we head towards ’22, and obviously we look forward to sharing more details on 2022 when we get towards the end of the year.

Spencer Hanus — Wolfe Research — Analyst

Thanks. That’s really helpful color. And then, could you guys comment on how rational your peers have been at passing through inflation? And are you expecting any gross margin headwinds from some of the elevated inflation in the perimeter of the store? Any additional color there would be would be helpful.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

If you look at — during the quarter about half of the gross margin impact was from higher shrink and higher supply chain costs, and Gary in his prepared remarks talked a little bit about both of those. But if you look at shrink, a lot of that, about half of the half or 25% of it is driven within the shrink component and that’s heavily driven by organized crime, at least it appears to be. And I know Congress and other groups are starting to spend more time on understanding what’s driving that and what’s behind it and what’s the distribution channels for the stolen products as well and trying to manage that.

And then on the supply chain costs, we are proactively investing there to minimize the effect on both of those areas, the guidance that Gary shared for the balance of the year reflects the pressure in those areas. And from a inflationary standpoint, as you know, over time, we’ve been successful in operating in low or negative inflation and high inflation and we would see this no different and our business. The easiest place to operate is when inflation is between 3% or 4%, but you don’t ever get what you — it makes it the easiest. But so far, costs are being passed through in an organized way for the most part as we would expect and following our strategy.

Spencer Hanus — Wolfe Research — Analyst

Great, thank you so much.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Greg, sorry.

Operator

Our next question comes from Michael Lasser with UBS. Please go ahead.

Michael Lasser — UBS — Analyst

Good morning. Thanks a lot for taking my questions. I wanted to drill down into your comments around the consumer embracing eating at home coupled with targeting the total shareholder return formula for next year to still largely in the midst of the pandemic many workers are still working from home, so is the strength this year just delaying the inevitable shift back to food away from home in calendar ’22? And if that’s the case, you’re guiding to a 3% operating margin this year essentially, so how will you be able to maintain this operating margin rate in an environment where your sales are going to continue to be pressured, particularly as you have reduced a lot of your OG&A expenses this year? Thank you.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Michael. I’ll start and let Gary finish. If you look at all of our research on people eating at home, customers are telling us they enjoy eating at home and eating with their families, which we believe is structural and sustainable. They’re also telling us that eating at home they’re able to eat healthier, stretch their budget significantly further because it’s not nearly as expensive as eating in a restaurant, and they also like showing off their new skills on cooking. And all of those things, everything that our research would suggest our long-term trends and structural trends.

The other thing that everybody on the call, your guess is as good as ours, but everything that we can tell, we believe that people will continue working from home more than the past and many companies, and I know certainly we are we’re supporting people in terms of different jobs, what jobs can be worked from what location and in all of those cases what we’re finding is people are eating more meals at home, i.e. breakfast and lunch. So everything that we can see a meaningful part of the trend change is really structural and sustainable and it’s not just a one-time blip because of COVID. In terms of the margins and stuff, Gary, I’ll let you drill into some of that detail.

Gary Millerchip — Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Yeah, I think I would add Rodney is may be just, Mike, we’ll take you back to the journey we’ve been on for the last three years with our model and as you think about how we keep it up at our Investor Days. We feel that over 2019, 2020 and now 2021, we’re really demonstrating how we are able to manage the business more holistically as we think about delivering on our TSR model. So you think about the continued investments even through the pandemic that we are making in our customers to ensure that they see the value we’re delivering, whether that’s in the experience in some of the digital investments or through continue to invest in price where it makes sense and personalization to make sure we’re positioned well with the customer, the investments that we’re making in average hourly rate for our associates to ensure that we’re continuing to improve the experience there. And as you look at that and then think about the way in which we manage costs, we’re continuing to accelerate our alternative profit businesses and at the same time continue to get stronger, more effective at sourcing and managing margins in that way. I think that gives us confidence in our ability to continue to manage the business overall and drive a strong TSR in line with our commitments as you think about over time what are commitments are to our shareholders. So we’ll obviously get into more specifics around how we think about 2022 later in the year. And at this point, I wouldn’t — I wouldn’t want to get into specific details about next year, but that’s certainly how we think about our model and how we get confident in our ability to maintain the trajectory over time and supported by Rodney’s comments on how we think about continuing to see the customer spend dollars a few to high. I mean, how we can continue to to grow our business within that context.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

As you look at cost, it’s one of those things where we’ve been able to take cost out of the business without affecting the customer experience for years, and I know when we set out a goal we always think that that’s all we’re going to find and then our great teams are able to find more areas for process change and cost opportunities. And when I watch our operations team, Gary, you mentioned procurement team, our technology team, but more importantly how our stores and technology and operations team are working as one. They continue to identify things to make our associates job easier to reduce the number of touches a product and be able to take costs out, which our customers then benefit and some of that cost reduction is shared with our customers, some of it is shared with our associates, but it’s part of the overall flywheel that continues to accelerate and make our model sustainable, and Gary’s point on alternative profit is an important component of that as well.

Gary Millerchip — Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Actually, Rodney, one other thing on the cost side, Michael, that I think it’s important. We mentioned this again at our Investor Day, but this — the plan that we have to double digital on profitability, that’s obviously very important to the long-term strategy that Rodney outlined around how do we make sure that from a customer perspective they now having to compromise between store and digital experiences. But it’s also important from a business model point of view to continue to improve the profitability of the channel, so that from our perspective we can — we can be agnostic from whether the customer is buying online or buying in the store. As we grow that digital profitability rate, important to remember that just doesn’t affect the growth in the future, it affects the $10 billion business that we have today. So that’s also proving to be a tailwind in the financial modeling OG&A now, but also will continue to be a tailwind because we are only partway through that journey as we take cost out of filling an order and continue to grow media revenue per transaction as well.

Michael Lasser — UBS — Analyst

And my follow-up is focusing on the media revenue per transaction. It seems like that’s the area where you’re really supporting the profitability of your digital business and subsequently the overall gross margin for Kroger. As a result, where are you from an advertising perspective from a large CPG company perspective versus getting more advertising advertisers on the platform? Can you frame out how big this advertising opportunity can be? And as an unrelated side note, to what extent was there a vaccine distribution benefit within the gross margin on your large competitors talked about within the quarter?

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

There are several questions there. I’ll briefly talk about the media. We still see retail media as a significant opportunity and we shared at Investor Day, but Kroger’s retail media team and our retail media offer in five different areas, we ranked number one among our competitors in three of the five and we were tied for number one in the other two. So obviously, the value CPGs get from our offer and our ability to use our data to make sure the right customers are seeing offers is substantial and significant, and we believe that is a significant opportunity to continue to grow retail media. I won’t get into specifics other than we would say that we feel like we’re just getting started.

Gary Millerchip — Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Yeah, and then, Michael, I’ll just say on the health and wellness question. We would certainly have seen some benefit from COVID vaccines during the quarter. Having said that, we pivoted a lot of our efforts in the pharmacy business, which as you know is a big part of our operation in our little clinics. So I would say net-net if you looked at the health and wellness business, I would think of it as largely being on plan and so I wouldn’t think of it as a headwind or tailwind during the quarter or of that matter being a headwind for the rest of the year either. I think, we’ve got fully contemplated within our guidance the expectations around the health and wellness business going forward.

Michael Lasser — UBS — Analyst

Thanks very much and good luck.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from Chuck Cerankosky with Northcoast Research. Please go ahead.

Chuck Cerankosky — Northcoast Research — Analyst

Good morning, everyone, nice quarter. I want to talk a little bit about or ask a little bit about private label in this inflationary period. How do you see customers reacting to it? And is there a difference between a customer shopping in store and online?

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, if you look at our brands, Simple Truth and Private Selection continues to really gain share and grow. We’re also finding big packs are growing significantly. If you look at — for us, we find our brands — if CPGs are passing through inflation that’s not real. Every time when somebody does that, our brands even gain incremental share. The other thing that I’ve been really proud of our team is the innovation they put behind the product and we’ve introduced over 140 new products in the quarter and we continue to expect that going forward. I don’t — we’re not seeing behavior changes. If you go back to prior times when you had inflation, the customer a lot of times would trade over to our brands as part of stretching their budget.

We’re not seeing budget changes on our brands happening at this point, but I’m sure if inflation continued. Our customers are telling us they still feel pretty good where they are financially and for the most part people are still saving at record levels and things like that. Now at some point if budgets got more constrained, you will probably start seeing some of that behavior. But the business we’re gaining right now is really being created because of the innovation in our product and the quality of the product and it’s really standing on its own.

Chuck Cerankosky — Northcoast Research — Analyst

And then secondly, Rodney, are you seeing regional differences in the shifts in the way people moved in and out of e-commerce over the course of the quarter?

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Yes, we would, and it’s really wherever COVID is higher you would see the shift to more online in that delivery and pickup. And as it moves north, you would see that within the company. And as I mentioned in my prepared remarks, the things that we’re especially proud of is almost every customer that were shopping with us digitally early in the quarter that started — that stopped shopping digitally, restarted shopping in the stores. And for us, that’s really important as part of our overall strategy for seamless because what we find is after the first year an online shopper actually comes into the store more often than they did before they became an online shopper.

Chuck Cerankosky — Northcoast Research — Analyst

And you quantified what your total e-commerce did to the operating earnings during the quarter, is there any way to put a number on that, whether smaller loss or is it trending towards a positive number?

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Well, I’ll let Gary. I’ll talk a little bit. If you look at within the quarter, obviously we had the start-up costs of our sheds in Florida and Monroe, so that created a headwind. Obviously, that was reflected in our guidance that we gave for the year and our updated guidance. Gary, if there is any additional.

Gary Millerchip — Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Well, I think we talked about the profitability of digital in different ways and when we were adding all the fixed cost were more on the journey towards profitability as you alluding to. We generally focus there on what’s the pass-through rate on the transactions as we are growing customers because what we find with digital as you know is the customer becomes more loyal overall to Kroger and we see about 50% or so incrementality as the customers engages digitally. As we talked about previously, we had kind of, when you think back to last year we were at mid-single digit pass-through rate compared to our pass-through rate that will be closer to mid-to-high teens on a store transaction and we’re on the path to improving that profitability to to drive towards doubling the profit rate on the digital transaction, ultimately targeting to get to parity. I would say we’re making good progress on that journey. As I mentioned on my prepared comments, we continue to make solid improvements in the efficiency of picking a digital order and over time we expect to Ocado to play a role in that as well, of course, with the automation they provide and with media revenue continuing to grow rapidly, that’s also creating a tailwind. So I’d say we’re seeing good momentum and on track with where we expected to be with that journey in the quarter.

Chuck Cerankosky — Northcoast Research — Analyst

Thank you very much. Good luck for the rest of the year.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Chuck.

Operator

Our next question comes from Edward Kelly with Wells Fargo. Please go ahead.

Edward Kelly — Wells Fargo Securities, LLC — Analyst

Yeah, hi guys, good morning. I wanted to ask about — I wanted to ask about share repo and the cash balance. So you ended the quarter with a lot of cash. Again, you’re well below your leverage target. Thoughts on the buyback, is there is the stock attractive here? I guess is a straightforward question. And what are your thoughts on taking on additional debt to buyback stock because with the dry powder that’s here, I mean it seems like you could probably take out north of 10% of the shares. Is this a bigger part of delivering 8% to 11% next year? Just kind of curious as to how we should be thinking about all this.

Gary Millerchip — Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Yeah, thanks for the question, Ed. I would say overall we’re not changing our overall financial strategy as we think about our free cash flow, we continue to start with how can we invest in the business to grow it profitably and sustained growth and we still think there’s lots of opportunity to accelerate the model. I think we guided you to a little bit of info on our Investor Day. Our goal over time would be to be stretching our topline growth and our overall earnings growth. So the focus for excess free cash flow is certainly looking for where the opportunities as we believe we can continually with Fresh and accelerate with digital to drive that growth. We’re certainly going to look at any of those incremental investments against the bar saying is that going to drive a stronger return for investors versus buying back incremental stock.

But within our overall framework today, as we obviously continue to invest in the business to grow, we are committed to continuing to return cash to shareholders the level that we shared in our current TSR model as you heard us say, we increased the dividend by 17% to reflect really our confidence that we expect to come out of COVID at a higher position from an operating profit perspective as we leave 2021 and we continue to buy back stock during the quarter and would expect to continue to buy back stock at the current price. We do leverage a great, I think I’ve referred to this before. So think about it is depending on when the sharp share prices, that — if the share price is low, it buys back more stock during the quarter. If the share price is higher, it buys back less stock because we’re not trying to time anything in the market, we’re really trying to make sure that we’re maximizing the return on the dollar as we go through the year to take advantage of fluctuations in the prices as it happens during a typical trading period. But we certainly remain committed to returning cash to investors. We start with the excess cash from our point of view saying where could we accelerate our growth and ultimately we’ll share more on that as we identify those opportunities and we’ll continue to flex if we believe that there are those opportunities, then obviously we’ll look to make sure we are dynamic and making sure we’re deploying excess cash.

Edward Kelly — Wells Fargo Securities, LLC — Analyst

Okay, great. And just a quick follow-up on the gross margin. Is the two-year number for Q2, is that a good way to think about the back half? Or with inflation accelerating and supply chain, does that headwind grow a little bit in the back half? Just curious as how we should be thinking about that.

Gary Millerchip — Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

I think actually Q2 is a pretty good sort of overall — we don’t get into specific numbers, but I think directionally it’s a helpful way to think about the back half of the year. As you think about overall earnings, we would think gross margin continue to be a headwind, part of that being warehouse and transportation, part of it being shrink. We’re also continuing to invest in the business where we think it makes sense and give value to customers. OG&A will continue to be a tailwind, but we will see less COVID cycling if you like in the back half of the year. So that’s why the overall impact on operating profit won’t be as strong in the back half of the year. But if you think about Q2 in general, outside of that cycling of extra COVID cost last year in the first half of the year, I think it’s a pretty good way to think about the back half of the year.

Edward Kelly — Wells Fargo Securities, LLC — Analyst

Great, thank you.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Ed.

Operator

Our next question comes from Michael Montani with Evercore ISI. Please go ahead.

Michael Montani — Evercore ISI — Analyst

Great. Thank you for taking the question. I was just hoping to get a little bit of incremental color around the ID sales. Has the transaction count turned positive at this point? And then secondly, if you could provide some incremental color around how much inflation you were able to kind of pass-through to consumers vis-a-vis what you saw in COGS is because of times in the past you had some — given some helpful context there?

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

If you look at transaction count, we would continue to have slightly declining or kind of flat transaction count. It really depends on if you’re looking at versus prior year or two years. If you look at the basket size per purchase, it significantly increased in terms of when customers come into the store they buy significantly more or if you look at our online shop customer, that customers basket size is significantly higher than a basket when somebody comes into a store. So both from a digital standpoint and a individual transaction standpoint, customers are significantly buying more.

And it’s all, it’s really three things. One, they’re buying more. They’re also buying premiumization of product where they’ve upgraded the products they buy. And they also are buying bigger size products as well. So if you think about toilet paper, very few customers now can or will even by a four-pack of toilet paper where most customers now are buying 24-pack or even bigger in some cases. In terms of the inflation, Gary, I’ll let you answer Michael’s question on that.

Gary Millerchip — Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Thanks for the question, Michael. Yeah, we’d laid out before I know on the call. We have a very robust process for how we manage when we see inflationary cost flowing through from suppliers. And first of all, we challenge to make sure that we feel confident of that legitimate because obviously we want to make sure that they truly are structural cost changes. And then if they are, we absolutely have a process for passing them on to the customer. I would say that generally we’ve been very comfortable with our ability to pass on the increases that we’ve seen at this point and we would expect that to continue to be the case looking into the back half of the year. As you saw during the quarter, we are continuing to invest in price where we think it makes sense. Sometimes that might be in areas where we’re seeing inflation, sometimes it might be where we’re investing because we believe it’s the right thing to do to grow customer long term loyalty and other places through our personalization strategies. So overall, we feel good about the way in which we’re able to manage the inflation within the business and at the same time we are continuing to invest because we believe that’s going to be important to grow share in the long term as well.

Michael Montani — Evercore ISI — Analyst

Got it. Thank you.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from Karen Short with Barclays. Please go ahead.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Karen, are you there.

Karen Short — Barclays Capital — Analyst

Oh, sorry, can you hear me now.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah.

Karen Short — Barclays Capital — Analyst

I’m sorry about that. Yeah, so I had a couple of questions just related to guidance. Gary, you mentioned that the vaccine admin fee kind of netted out with respect to other initiatives that you had and I guess health and wellness in general. I’m just wondering if you could give a little more color on that because it was a very sizable than one of your competitors in terms of basis point contribution to gross margin. And then other model questions that I just wanted to clarify were, what your actual LIFO expectations are for the year because that’s obviously relevant for EPS? And then what your COVID costs were in the quarter and what your expectations for COVID cost will be for the rest of the year? And then I had one other bigger picture questions.

Gary Millerchip — Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Sure. Thanks, Karen. On the pharmacy side of things, yeah, so essentially as you know we operate little clinics as well in a number of our stores and multiple stores have little clinic facilities. And in our pharmacy core business, we continue to support the COVID vaccine. So my comment earlier was when you look at the total health and wellness business as we pivoted resources to do more COVID vaccinations and as we provided that support, whether it be through offsite locations or through our own facilities and you look at the total impact of the pharmacy business as customers shifted to more COVID vaccines and less of the new prescriptions, If you like, even though we grew script count overall during the quarter and continue to grow script times. If I look at the total impact on the health and wellness business for the quarter and the year-to-date, that wouldn’t be immaterial overall outside of business time performance. Although certainly if you look to the COVID vaccines in isolation, they would have — they would have created a incremental value to the health and wellness business, but it was offset by lower revenue or lower margin impact on other parts of that business, so netted out to being on plan, if you like. And as we look at the back half of the year, wouldn’t expect it to be a reason that we have an incremental headwind in margin because of having less COVID vaccinations in the back half of the year as things start to return. Certainly, we expect some vaccines in the back half of the year, but things start to return a little bit more to normal than less of a spike in vaccines compared to what we saw in the first half of the year.

From a LIFO perspective, as you — I think you’re probably know it’s not really an easy thing to predict because LIFO was a charge, is one data point at the end of the year. As we looked at the data point so far this year, we’re seeing an inflation. We use those spots to predict where it would be. I think the best guidance we can give you is if you take the year-to-date performance in LIFO that we charged to the P&L and then growth up effectively for the full year, that would be essentially our full year expectation based on the data points that we’ve seen to this point in the year in our outlook, but FIFO, sorry LIFO, I beg you pardon, is notoriously difficult to predict. So we’re giving you our best estimate. But at the end of the day it will be driven by accounting rules and a data point towards the end of the year. But I think the best indication to give you at this point would be the year-to-date performance and growth set up for the year is our best estimate.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

So in essence, annualize and so divide by 7 times [Indecipherable]

Gary Millerchip — Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Exactly, yeah.

Karen Short — Barclays Capital — Analyst

Great. And then just COVID.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Cost for the quarter.

Gary Millerchip — Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Oh, yeah, so as I mentioned earlier, we’ve certainly saw a significantly greater cost in the first half of last year as a company we adapted and learned how to operate more efficiently. We would certainly see continued COVID costs in the back half of this year. I have a cycling less cost from last year. We would expect it to be size of $100 million a quarter, but certainly we’re still seeing incremental costs in some of the areas that you would probably expect when you think about how we continue to operate through COVID, we still have masks cost during the quarter as we still have cleaning costs, we still have extended leave and absence for any associates that are identified as having the COVID virus been diagnosed as a positive COVID case. So those will be the kind of cost that we would say and we’d expect it to be a little bit less than $100 million a year, sorry a quarter, I beg your pardon, as we look at the back half of the year and still being a slight tailwind year-over-year, but nothing like what we just seen in the first half of 2020.

Karen Short — Barclays Capital — Analyst

Okay and then just my bigger picture question is on Florida, so with respect to Ocado. Curious, Rodney, on your early learnings from Florida and whether you think that you may want to emphasize opening scheds in markets where you actually don’t have physical or retail locations or any thoughts on where you’re at on that philosophy in terms of markets where you have a high market share, markets where you have middle market share, and markets where you have no presence based on what you know so far?

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, it’s a great question. But we’re still early in the process of answering that. And if you look at in Florida, we are tracking ahead of where we thought we would be at this point. And the thing that I’m especially proud of our teams in Florida is our net promoter scores are incredibly strong, I mean mind-boggling strong and it made up in the neighborhood of best-in-class across all industries. And as you know, food retail usually struggles with having net promoter scores that are up in the Apple neighborhood and things like that. So I’m incredibly proud of what our teams are doing in terms of creating the experience for the customer. And I appreciate and like your question, I would say we’re still early in the process and we continue to learn every day on our ability to ramp up a facility in a new market. Certainly, it’s easier communicating to the customer in new markets or markets where ours isn’t as high, and that was one of the reasons why we picked Florida and picked Monroe here outside of Cincinnati was to learn how to integrate it within our existing infrastructure and then having something from the ground up. And I would expect over time we’ll learn how to do both of them and we’ll be really happy with the results.

Karen Short — Barclays Capital — Analyst

Great. Thanks very much. That’s helpful.

Operator

Our last question comes from Rupesh Parikh with Oppenheimer. Please go ahead.

Rupesh Parikh — Oppenheimer — Analyst

Good morning. Thanks for taking my question and fitting me in. So I guess just going back to the gross margin headwinds during the quarter that you saw, to date called [Phonetic] our shrink in supply chain, it sounds like that maybe half the pressure that you saw during the quarter. I was curious if you see those headwinds on the shrink in supply chain at all transitory?

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

I think incrementally, yes. But if you look at shrink, I think shrink will remain higher. Now we will go through and do all kinds of process changes to try to minimize shrink, but we are being more aggressive and Christine Wheatley, who is our General Counsel is also working with some trade associations to try to start working on it in a broader group, not just Kroger specific when you look at organized crime. And I know I was reading Home Depot’s earnings call and they talked about the same thing. So we do believe that it will be important to partner with the government and the way products are able to be sold in the marketplace.

So I do think there’s things we will do to improve, but some of it will be a headwind until we are able to address that. On supply chain, I think also a lot of that will be transitory, but you still have to manage through it.

Rupesh Parikh — Oppenheimer — Analyst

Okay, great. And then maybe just one follow-up question. We’re hearing more and more from suppliers lately of challenges in the supply chain and being able to fulfill all the consumer demand out there. So I was just curious how you’re out of stocks right now trending versus what you’ve seen in recent months?

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah, I would say that we were slightly higher. Now our teams are going in and continuing to aggressively forward by inventory. Originally it was because of the inflation pressures it’s ended up because of some of the supply chain issues. It’s also one of the benefits of a lot of our own brands and we manufacturer a lot of our own brands. So our plants are aggressively pushing capacity. So I would say that it is a headwind. It’s slightly worse than it was, but we continue to work on minimizing and maximizing the in-stocks.

Rupesh Parikh — Oppenheimer — Analyst

Okay, great. Thank you.

W. Rodney McMullen — Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Thank you. Appreciate it.

But before we conclude today’s call, I’d like to take a moment to remember the tragic events that took place nearly 20 years ago, 20 years ago tomorrow, and to honor the lives lost on September 11, 2001. And as always, I’d like to take a moment to address our associates who are listening in. Thank you for delivering an outstanding performance this quarter and continuing to support our communities through the pandemic.

As the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant, I want to affirm that health and safety of our associates and customers remain our top priority. We are doing everything we can do to make sure the vaccine is accessible and available to you and our customers wherever they are. I am so proud of our Kroger Health team who have already administrated 6.7 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Thank you to our talented health care professionals for being there for our communities and for addressing questions for our customers about the vaccine and about getting the vaccine.

I’m often reminded of the impact our associates have on the lives of our customers. Recently, one of our pharmacy managers in Atlanta saved the life of the customer who was having an allergic reaction in one of our stores. This is just one of the many examples that in extraordinary ways our associates care for those around them. Thank you for inspiring me every day and thank you for all you do every day to be there for our customers, our communities and each other. That concludes today’s call.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

Disclaimer

This transcript is produced by AlphaStreet, Inc. While we strive to produce the best transcripts, it may contain misspellings and other inaccuracies. This transcript is provided as is without express or implied warranties of any kind. As with all our articles, AlphaStreet, Inc. does not assume any responsibility for your use of this content, and we strongly encourage you to do your own research, including listening to the call yourself and reading the company’s SEC filings. Neither the information nor any opinion expressed in this transcript constitutes a solicitation of the purchase or sale of securities or commodities. Any opinion expressed in the transcript does not necessarily reflect the views of AlphaStreet, Inc.

© COPYRIGHT 2021, AlphaStreet, Inc. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, redistribution or retransmission is expressly prohibited.

Most Popular

A look at Weber’s (WEBR) first quarterly report as a public company

Shares of outdoor grill maker Weber Inc. (NYSE: WEBR) were up 9% on Wednesday after the company released its first quarterly earnings report since going public last month. The stock

Is Crocs (NASDAQ: CROX) stock still a buy after the massive rally?

While throwing markets into disarray, the widespread shutdown also had a positive effect on industries like retail and technology, but there are surprise winners like Crocs, Inc. (NASDAQ: CROX) that

Leaf Mobile CEO Darcy Taylor: Aiming to double game portfolio by year-end

Credit: agrobacter on iStock How do you see the future of mobile gaming revenues – is it going to be primarily from advertisements, or will it be more skewed towards

Add Comment
Loading...
Cancel
Viewing Highlight
Loading...
Highlight
Close
Top