Tractor Supply: "The Wal-Mart of Rural America"

07/02/2019 5:00 am EST

Focus: CONSUMER

Stephen Leeb

Founder and Research Chairman, Leeb Group

As international trade tensions fester, one way to gain protection is to invest in companies that operate solely within the U.S. Retail store chains Tractor Supply (TSCO) — a current Growth Portfolio recommendation — fits this bill, asserts Stephen Leeb, growth stock expert and editor of The Complete Investor.

Tractor Supply has a leading presence in a large and growing domestic market. Our sobriquet for Tractor Supply as “the Wal-Mart of rural America” remains apt. The company’s own self-description is “the stuff you need out here.”

The downside to its down-home emphasis became unfortunately evident right after we first recommended the stock in 2016. The company had skimped on investing in digital technologies, largely accounting for the slippage in same-store sales growth (SSSG) back down to recessionary levels of about 1.5%. But the franchise was far too strong to give up on.

And since then, Tractor Supply has been steadily improving. In 2017, the company’s IT investment doubled to about 30% of total investment, where it remains today. That surge in IT investment was rewarded by rising online sales, better inventory controls, and the ability to recognize and respond faster to changing buying patterns.

The company’s rural franchise, which had begun to weaken a bit, has come back as strong as ever, and after the rough start the stock has broken into positive territory.

More IT made it possible to launch the profitable “Neighbor’s Club” initiative, which bestows seasonal rewards upon members. It has grown like gangbusters and now has more than 12 million members, who on average spend more than three times what nonmembers do.

Tractor Supply also has grabbed onto the burgeoning U.S. growth in spending on pets. Around 80% of its stores now have grooming facilities, and all the stores have broadened their selection of pet-related items. The company also has launched a separate line of stores devoted entirely to pets.

In all, despite tough times in the farming sector, SSSG has averaged 5% since the third quarter of 2017. The country’s rural population, which declined a bit in the first part of the new century, has steadied at about 46 million.

One gross statistic that points to long-term gains is that the market capitalization of the stock is about $260 per potential customer.

For Wal-Mart (WMT), which has much more competition among its franchise shoppers, the figure is $1,000 per potential customer. Over the long term we expect Tractor Supply to outperform through thick and thin, and it remains a strong recommendation.

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