Walgreens Shares Fall as Pandemic Demand Slows and Health-Care Investments Ramp Up

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  • Walgreens Boots Alliance shares fell as demand linked to the coronavirus pandemic slowed and the company ramped up its investments in health-care services.
  • The drugstore chain has drawn foot traffic and higher sales during the pandemic, particularly when Covid cases spike.
  • Walgreens maintained its outlook for the year, despite beating Wall Street's fiscal second-quarter earnings expectations.

Shares of Walgreens Boots Alliance fell nearly 6% on Thursday, as the drugstore chain credited the omicron variant for strong fiscal second-quarter sales and cautioned it will take time for its health-care investments to pay off.

Walgreens has drawn foot traffic and higher sales during the coronavirus pandemic, particularly when Covid cases spike. Shoppers have visited the company's stores and website to get vaccines and buy at-home Covid tests.

As pandemic-related tail winds appear to fade, however, some investors have raised concerns that Walgreens is losing momentum. The company did not raise its forecast for the year, despite a second-quarter earnings beat. Walgreens President John Standley said on the company's earnings call that demand for Covid testing has slowed down since January and February.

The pace of vaccinations slowed, too. The drugstore chain said it administered 11.8 million Covid vaccines in the second quarter, down from 15.6 million in the first quarter. Walgreens has administered a total of more than 62.8 million Covid vaccines to date.

Standley said there is still "a nice steady stream," though, and he said the drugstore chain began offering fourth Covid shots on Wednesday.

The company is also in the early days of turning itself into a more health-care oriented company — a costly endeavor that will include the opening of hundreds of doctor's offices, significant store remodels and the hiring of more medical staff.

Chief Financial Officer James Kehoe reiterated the company's outlook for low single-digit growth in adjusted earnings per share for the year. On an earnings call, he said it typically takes a doctor's office about two years to ramp up. Once Walgreens' doctor's offices mature, however, he said the company will see significant benefits — including higher prescription volumes and lower medical costs.

John Ransom, an equity research analyst at Raymond James, said Walgreens' performance in the first half of the year coupled with its guidance foreshadow a sharp drop in the coming quarters and into 2023. Plus, he said, the drugstore industry is challenged by rising labor costs, reimbursement pressure from insurers and stale assortment in the front of stores.

"This new management team is taking a shot — and I commend them for that — but the problem is I can name five things wrong with the core business and not much right," he said.

Here's what Walgreens reported compared with what analysts were expecting for the second quarter ended Feb. 28, based on Refinitiv data:

  • Earnings per share: $1.59 adjusted vs. $1.40 expected
  • Revenue: $33.76 billion vs. $33.4 billion expected

In the quarter, net income fell to $883 million, or $1.02 per share, from $1.03 billion, or $1.19 per share, in the year-ago period.

Excluding items, the company earned $1.59 per share, exceeding the $1.40 expected by analysts surveyed by Refinitiv.

Sales rose to $33.76 billion from $32.78 billion a year earlier, and surpassed the $33.4 billion that analysts expected.

Same-store sales for pharmacy segment in the U.S. rose 7.3% in the quarter compared with the year-ago period, including Covid vaccinations.

Same-store sales for retail in the U.S. jumped 14.7%, the largest gain in more than 20 years. The company said it saw growth in all categories — especially in health and wellness with at-home Covid tests and cough, cold and flu-related merchandise, along with personal care and beauty items.

Sales of over-the-counter medications for common illnesses had fallen sharply at major drugstores, including competitors CVS Health and Rite Aid, during earlier parts of the pandemic as people wore masks and spent more time at home. That trend appears to be reversing as people dine out, return to the office and mingle with other people again.

At its U.K.-based Boots chain, retail same-store sales surged 22% year over year, with share gains across all major categories.

Walgreens' e-commerce sales in the U.S. increased 38% in the second quarter, on top of 78% growth in the year-ago period. A lot of the growth in the more recent quarter came from 3.9 million same-day pickup orders, the company said.

Led by CEO Roz Brewer, former operating chief of Starbucks, the retailer has taken steps to become a health-care company. It acquired a majority stake of VillageMD, a primary care provider that is opening hundreds of doctor's offices at Walgreens stores. Walgreens is turning parts of some stores into Health Corners, where customers can consult with a pharmacist or nurse. And the company is opening automated facilities where robots fill prescriptions, freeing up pharmacists' time to provide more medical care.

Walgreens also stands to benefit from the Food and Drug Administration's authorization this week of a fourth Covid shot for people who are age 50 and older or immunocompromised.

Kehoe said on an earnings call that Walgreens does not know how many vaccines that could total and did not factor them into its forecast. He said the company has been able to pass most of the rising costs onto customers, despite inflation and the high price of ocean freight.

Walgreens said it is still considering the future of its U.K.-based Boots drugstore chain. Earlier this year, Brewer confirmed Walgreens is exploring strategic options for Boots, including a potential sale, as the company focuses on its U.S. health-care business.

As of Thursday's close, Walgreens shares are down about 14% so far this year. The stock ended Thursday at $44.77, bringing the company's market value to $38.65 billion.

Read the company's press release here.

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