Starbucks top sales forecasts as holiday drinks make comeback

(Reuters) - Starbucks exceeded Wall Street forecasts for quarterly sales on Thursday, led by the popularity of its holiday-themed drinks in the United States, where its growth has been cooling in an increasingly crowded market for coffee houses.

FILE PHOTO - People walk past a Starbucks store in Los Angeles, California, United States, October 17, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The world’s largest coffee chain said it listened to customers and brought back its much loved red-colored cups and holiday favorites such as Peppermint Mochas and Gingerbread Lattes during the final three months of 2018.

“This comprehensive, insight-driven approach delivered results and importantly, created momentum that provides a solid foundation for future quarters,” Starbucks Chief Executive Officer Kevin Johnson said on a conference call with analysts.

The Seattle-headquartered company, which is battling high-end coffee houses and smaller upstarts in the United States, has rolled out promotions, especially during slow afternoons to pull in more customers.

Iced beverages and its Draft Nitro cold brew which aims to create a beer-like experience have been particularly successful, and the company said its morning and afternoon sales in the December-quarter was the best in five quarters.

Partnerships with food-delivery companies and an increased focus on customer service through its mobile app are also helping boost sales, Starbucks executives said.

Globally, the company’s same-restaurant sales rose 4 percent during the December-quarter, topping analysts’ average estimate of a 2.8 percent increase, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

“Overall, we believe it was a solid quarter and this is another quarter that reinforces our view that the turnaround is showing progress and gaining some steam,” Edward Jones analyst Brian Yarbrough said.

Sales from Starbucks’ Americas and U.S. business reached a record $4.6 billion in the three months ended Dec. 30, while same-restaurant sales in China, its second biggest market, also showed an increase.

In China, where the company competes with local brands like Luckin Coffee, sales at established Starbucks cafes beat estimates, driven mainly by new store openings and its delivery program that now supports 2,000 stores across 30 Chinese cities.

For a graphic on Starbucks' sales growth in China, click here:

Starbucks shares were last higher by 1.5 percent at $65.75 in after-hours trading on Thursday, easing from a 4 percent advance earlier.

The company’s quarterly net revenue climbed 9.2 percent to $6.63 billion, beating analysts’ forecasts of $6.49 billion.

Net earnings attributable to Starbucks fell to $760.6 million from $2.25 billion a year earlier, reflecting nearly $1.8 billion in gains last year from acquisitions and the sale of some businesses.

Excluding one-time items, the company earned 68 cents per share, beating estimates by 3 cents.

Reporting by Nivedita Balu in Bengaluru; Editing by Sai Sachin Ravikumar