By Lisa Baertlein
Oct 30 (Reuters) - Starbucks Corp conservatively forecast 2014 profit below Wall Street's view, despite fourth quarter profits that jumped 34 percent on strong traffic gains and an increase in spending by its customers.
Shares in the world's biggest coffee chain, one of the economy-defying growth companies such as burrito chain Chipotle Mexican Grill and upscale grocer Whole Foods Market Inc , fell 2.5 percent after hours to $78.80.
Expectations run exceedingly high for high-flying companies like Starbucks, and any perceived stumble is often punished in the form of a share selloff.
Starbucks on Wednesday repeated its forecast for fiscal 2014 earnings in the range of $2.55 to $2.65 per share. Analysts' average estimate had called for a full-year profit of $2.67 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
"We are more optimistic about our future than ever before and at the same time we are realistic and practical in our expectations and I would encourage you to be as well," Chief Financial Officer Troy Alstead told analysts on a conference call.
Given the company's "stunning" growth in recent quarters and the inherent challenge associated with topping that performance, "it would be unreasonable to plan for or to set expectations any higher," Alstead said.
On Wednesday, the Seattle-based company reported that profit increased to $481.1 million, or 63 cents per share, for the fiscal fourth quarter ended Sept. 29, from $359 million, or 46 cents per share, a year earlier.
Starbucks' consolidated operating margin expanded 220 basis points to 17.6 percent during the fourth quarter, with increases from every operating unit.
Global sales at Starbucks cafes open at least 13 months were up 7 percent during the latest quarter, driven by a 5 percent increase in traffic.
That figure included a stronger-than-expected 8 percent rise for the U.S.-dominated Americas region that contributes nearly three-fourth of Starbucks revenue. Seasonal pumpkin spice drinks, new pastries from La Boulange and cold-pressed drinks from Evolution Fresh contributed to the rise in U.S. sales, executives said.
Chief Executive Howard Schultz scolded analysts for pressing the company to set ever-loftier targets for same-store sales growth.
"It's not going to happen," he said. "The guidance we're giving is the most responsible guidance we could possibly provide you, especially when you consider the maturation of our store base and the number of stores."