UPDATE 3-Starbucks boosts profit forecast despite slower growth
Jan 23 (Reuters) - Starbucks Corp on Thursday reported that sales at established restaurants in its U.S.-dominated Americas region cooled more than analysts expected in its latest quarter as online shopping kept more consumers at home and reduced their visits to its coffee bars.
With fewer shoppers going to all types of stores to buy gifts, Starbucks executives said sales at its cafes open at least 13 months softened, particularly in December
Nevertheless, the world's biggest coffee chain boosted its fiscal 2014 earnings per share forecast to a range of $2.59 to $2.67, from $2.55 to $2.65 previously, sending shares up more than 1 percent to $74.15 in after-hours trade.
Global sales at Starbucks cafes open at least 13 months were up 5 percent, versus analysts' average estimate for a 5.9 percent rise, according to Consensus Metrix. That figure included a 5 percent increase for the Americas region, which contributes 70 percent of Starbucks revenue. Analysts, on average, expected a 6.4 percent rise from the region.
In the two prior quarters, Starbucks' Americas region same-restaurant sales were up 8 percent and 9 percent.
"It's hard to really be to critical, especially when you compare what we've seen and what we're about to see in the coming weeks," Edward Jones analyst Jack Russo said, referring to the recent spate of disappointing earnings reports and profit warnings from restaurants and retailers.
Those included McDonald's Corp, which earlier on Thursday reported a steeper-than-expected drop in December sales at established restaurants in the United States and put some of the blame on frigid winter weather.
"Growth is hard to find," Russo said.
SHIFT TO ONLINE SHOPPING
Expectations had been muted ahead of the release of Starbucks' results, in part because the Seattle company has been on a growth tear that many analysts said could not go on forever.
In a conference call with analysts, Starbucks Chairman and Chief Executive Howard Schultz predicted that December 2013 would go down as the turning point in the way consumers shop.
"People spent much more time on the web than ever before," Schultz said.
Overall U.S. online sales in the period between Nov. 2 and Dec. 23 grew 10 percent compared with a year earlier, according to data firm comScore.
ShopperTrak last week said U.S. shopper traffic at brick and mortar stores fell 14.6 percent during the holiday season.
Schultz pointed to the Americas region's 4 percent traffic increase in the latest quarter as proof that Starbucks would successfully weather the change - in large part because online sellers can't replicate the experience of having a croissant and coffee at one of its shops.
Starbucks' net earnings increased 25 percent to $540.7 million, or 71 cents per share, for the fiscal first quarter ended on Dec. 29.
Excluding a litigation credit of 2 cents a share, Starbucks' profit matched Wall Street's average estimate of 69 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
The company also has $1 billion in deferred revenue on the books from Starbucks gift cards purchases and reloads in the first quarter. That money will be booked as revenue as it is spent.
There has been a growing concern among analysts that the U.S. roll-out of pastries from La Boulange, a San Francisco-area bakery Starbucks bought in 2012, has slowed service because workers are taking the time to warm up baked goods.
La Boulange products are sold in half of Starbucks' company-operated stores in the United States, which works out to about 3,500 stores.
Chief Financial Officer Troy Alstead told Reuters that Starbucks has added staff and revamped workers' duties to accommodate the additional labor.
"This is a myth that absolutely has no legs," Schultz said on the call.
"There may be a perception that there is a slowdown, but when we measure it, there is no change," Alstead told Reuters.
Starbucks is one of the best-performing companies in the restaurant category and its shares have run up more than 30 percent in the last 12 months.
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