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Whole Foods lowers sales forecast on price cuts

By Phil Wahba

Nov 6 (Reuters) - Whole Foods Market Inc on Wednesday lowered its sales forecast for fiscal 2014, citing price cuts to keep up with competitors, and shares fell 9.5 percent in after-hours trading.

Expectations were high ahead of the company's fiscal fourth-quarter report, in part because the upscale grocer's sales trends tend to mirror those of Starbucks Corp, which reported strong results for the latest quarter.

But Whole Foods has had to match prices of rivals as a growing number of retailers, including Kroger Co, Costco Wholesale Corp, Target Corp and even Wal-Mart Stores Inc have increased their offerings of fresh and organic food, pressuring the grocer.

"It's coming from all directions," Morningstar analyst Ken Perkins said.

Overall sales rose 2.2 percent to $2.98 billion. Wall Street analysts were expecting $3.04 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Same-store sales, a key gauge of performance for retailers, rose 5.9 percent for the fiscal fourth quarter ended Sept. 29, the slowest pace of the year and below the 8 percent pace Wall Street got used to in recent years.

Those comparable are up 5.8 percent so far.

Whole Foods executives took umbrage at the suggestion that slower growth reflected a deeper problem for the company.

"The fundamentals are the same. There's nothing broken about the growth story," co-Chief Executive Officer Walter Robb told Reuters, citing the company's recent store openings and plans to eventually have 1,000 U.S. stores, compared with 367 now.

Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods, the largest U.S. natural and organic grocery chain, lowered its same-store sales growth for fiscal 2014 by 1 percentage point on both ends of the range to a rise of 5.5 percent to 7 percent.

The company lowered prices in a number of categories in the last two quarters and Robb told Reuters there was room for more in the perishable foods category.

It also lowered its profit forecast to a range of $1.65 to $1.69 per share from an earlier range of $1.69 to $1.72.

Net income rose to $121 million, or 32 cents per share, from $113 million, or 30 cents last year, and 1 penny better than Wall Street expected.