April 26, 2019 / 3:35 PM / a month ago

'Anemic' traffic raises doubts over Starbucks sales gains

(Reuters) - Initial optimism over first-quarter results from Starbucks Corp was waning fast on Wall Street on Friday, as analysts questioned the longer-term prospects of its new sales push given subdued overall customer traffic numbers especially in China.

FILE PHOTO: A Starbucks sign is show on one of the companies stores in Los Angeles, California, U.S. October 19,2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

The company on Thursday beat brokerage estimates for quarterly same-store sales on the back of demand for its new Cloud Macchiato, Matcha tea and cold brews in the United States.

However, BTIG’s Peter Saleh was one of a number of sector analysts who said while customers forking out for higher-priced new drinks had helped drive growth in same-store sales, “anemic” traffic at cafes remained a concern.

He and others pointed to a 1 percent decline in footfall at cafes in the Chinese market, viewed as crucial to the chain’s growth for the foreseeable future.

More broadly, transaction numbers, the substitute analysts use for customer traffic, were unchanged in all three of the company’s global regions.

Shares in the company, which hit a record high after the results on Thursday, fell 1 percent in morning trade.

“We remain cautious given near-term headwinds surrounding China, including cannibalization, increasing competition (and) a slowing economy,” Wedbush analyst Nick Setyan said.

Starbucks has also poured money into beefing up its delivery network in China as it battles with local startup Luckin Coffee, whose speedy growth led it to file for an IPO in the United States earlier this week.

New menu items and partnerships with delivery services, the heart of the company’s strategy to win back customers lost to artisanal coffee shops and cheaper fast-food rivals, did help Starbucks’ sales in its home market.

However, analysts said growth in China may continue to be subdued.

Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog said she expects store expansion in China to take priority over comparable sales growth.

She downgraded her rating on Starbucks’ to “market perform” from “outperform”, arguing that the company facing tough sales comparisons later on in 2019 from last year and the current rich valuation of shares meant the stock had limited room to rise.

“Investors will be hesitant to invest new money in a stock with a topline that, while still strong, is unlikely to meaningfully accelerate,” Herzog said.

Still, the company’s solid same-store growth in the United States, improving profit margins and a lower tax rate for the rest of the year led at least 6 Wall Street brokerages to raise their price targets on the stock to as high as $81.

11 of 29 brokerages rate Starbucks “buy” or higher, 17 “hold” and 1 “sell” or lower. Their median price target is $75.

Reporting by Uday Sampath in Bengaluru

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