Scanning supermarket aisles for stocks

Check out these value, speculative and niche picks for the grocer in you.

By InvestorPlace Jun 20, 2012 11:27AM

Image: Grocery shopping (© Noel Hendrickson/Getty Images/Getty Images)By Lawrence Meyers

I am not a fan of supermarkets these days. While they desperately fight off challenges from stores like Dollar Tree (DLTR) and the organic juggernaut that is Whole Foods Market (WFM), they still continue to lose market share.

That's why I became intrigued by other niche players and think there's value there to be explored. Let's check in and see how these markets are doing.

Casey's General Stores (CASY) is an intriguing 53-year-old, 1,700-store chain that also operates under the names HandiMart and Just Diesel and stretches across 11 states (but is mostly located in Iowa, Missouri and Illinois).

Casey's carries all the things you'd expect at a convenience store, but it also offers pizzas, burgers and breakfast items. So it's like a combination of convenience store and Denny's (DENN). The best way to get a feel for the chain is to visit its website. One of Casey's primary advantages is its rural locations, which protects it from competition.

The company's revenue soared last year, up 24% with earnings up 35% after backing out charges associated with fending off an attempted acquisition. CASY's fourth quarter was tough, though, as gasoline margins were tight, despite a 13% overall revenue increase. With growth of 13% to 15% going forward, the stock is pricey. Still, it has much better prospects than others.

SuperValu (SVU) has been struggling for quite some time. While growth has been anemic, it's forgivable because the company is undergoing a turnaround. The focus has been on reducing debt, and the company has one big thing going for it: lots of free cash flow. Last year, SuperValu's FCF was almost $400 million, and this year it's projected to reach $450 million. CEO Craig Heckert is pledging to use most of it to reduce SVU's debt from current levels of $5.87 billion, but that's still a heck of a lot of debt to deal with -- and being carried at 9%, no less.

For a while, I thought the 35-cent yield wouldn't be sustainable, but it's only $74 million annually, and that won't make a dent in the debt anyway. Better to keep dividend investors on board. I think SuperValu might just be a speculative buy, but it assumes that free cash flow will stay consistent, and that the company can remain competitive in an increasingly hostile environment.

Given this environment, I'm impressed by Kroger's (KR) ability to keep growing. Total sales for Q1 were up 5.8% and same-store sales were up 4.2%. As other markets struggle, Kroger has managed consecutive same-store sales increases for the past eight-and-a-half years. The company lifted guidance 3% to $2.40 per share for the year. That puts the company at 9.5 times earnings and a long-term growth rate of 10%. When you factor in the 2% dividend, Kroger actually is a modest value play.

As of this writing, Lawrence Meyers did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. He is president of PDL Capital, Inc., which brokers secure high-yield investments to the general public and private equity, and he writes at

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