Analysts link 2Q Chipotle sales slowdown to Taco Bell success

Analysts link 2Q Chipotle sales slowdown to Taco Bell success

July 23, 2012 | By Lisa Jennings

A slowing of sales at Chipotle Mexican Grill in the second quarter sparked debate among Wall Street analysts and observers that Taco Bell’s new Doritos Locos Tacos may be to blame.

Taco Bell introduced the new taco line, which feature shells made with nacho cheese-flavored Doritos, in March, and the product has been hailed as one of the company’s most successful. Last week, parent company Yum! Brands Inc. attributed a 13-percent increase in Taco Bell’s same-store sales during its second quarter to the launch of Doritos Locos Tacos.

Meanwhile, Chipotle last week reported a less-than-expected same-store sales increase of 8 percent during its second quarter — a slip after seven consecutive quarters of double-digit same-store sales.

Though Chipotle’s results overall were enviable, including a 61-percent increase in profit and a 21-percent gain in revenue, the chain’s typically high-sailing stock price took a plunge, losing nearly a quarter of its value on Friday.

In a call with analysts last week, Chipotle blamed the sluggish economy and difficult two-year comparisons. In reports, however, Wall Street analysts pointed to a possible correlation between Taco Bell’s same-store sales rise and Chipotle’s relative fall.

“We believe Taco Bell’s resurgence — at four times the number of units and three times the amount of system U.S. sales — may have had some impact on Chipotle,” wrote John Ivankoe of J.P. Morgan, who attributed Taco Bell’s lift to the “decidedly un-Chipotle-like” Doritos Locos Tacos.

Ivankoe warned that Taco Bell’s new Cantina Bell menu, which launched July 5, at the beginning of Chipotle’s third quarter, was a more “direct competitive move.”

The Cantina Bell menu was designed by celebrity chef Lorena Garcia and includes a line of bowl or burrito options with new ingredients for Taco Bell that evoke the style of Chipotle — though they are more similar to what might be found on the menu at other fast-casual competitors, such as Baja Fresh Mexican Grill or Qdoba Mexican Grill.

Taco Bell’s’ Cantina Bell offerings, however, are positioned at under $5 — a premium offering for the quick-service Taco Bell, but a value position compared with Chipotle and others.

Mark Kalinowski of Janney Capital Markets noted, “There is not a ton of overlap between Chipotle’s customer base and Taco Bell’s customer base.”

Still, he also warned of the Cantina Bell threat, citing “industry sources” who said the new menu is “off to a great start in terms of sales.” He quoted one Taco Bell franchisee who credited the Cantina Bell menu for double-digit same-store sales increases since the launch, which has been heavily promoted.

“While we do not expect the vast majority of this business to come at Chipotle’s expense,” Kalinowski wrote, “it is possible that it might take a bit of business from Chipotle at the margins. And, given the high valuation multiples Chipotle receives, we want to be mindful of this risk to Chipotle’s sales trends, particularly in regards to the third quarter.”

John Gordon, principal of San Diego-based Pacific Management Consulting Group, however, does not believe that Chipotle fans suddenly jumped ship for a taco shell made of Doritos.

You just don’t change people’s thought patterns and preferences that quickly,” he said. “You’re looking at different customers. Chipotle customers are younger, and Taco Bell draws from a totally different demographic.”

Taco Bell’s impressive jump in same-store sales was likely in part because the chain had been lacking in “new menu news” for some time.

Just as Burger King saw same-store sales rise significantly after announcing its menu revamp earlier this year, it should be no surprise that Taco Bell would see an “outside bump,” he said.

David Tarantino of Baird Equity Research warned that Chipotle’s disappointing same-store-sales trends should not necessarily be seen as an indicator, saying his firm’s surveys of fast-casual chains do not suggest a broad-based pullback on consumer spending.

Tarantino said the slowdown was likely company-based, possibly because of the tougher multi-year comparisons, as well as extreme heat conditions that might suppress the appetite for burritos and aggressive promotions by other quick-service competitors, though he did not specify Taco Bell.

Though growth might be slower in the third quarter, Tarantino and others encouraged investors to take advantage of Chipotle’s lower stock price as an opportunity to get in on what will likely be long-term earnings growth.

“We still consider Chipotle’s top-line growth prospects among the best in the industry,” wrote Stephen Anderson, senior analyst for Miller Tabak + Co. LLC.

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