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AutoZone, inc (AZO) Q4 2021 Earnings Call Transcript | The Motley Fool

AutoZone, inc (NYSE:AZO)
Q4 2021 Earnings Call
Sep 21, 2021, 10:00 a.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Greetings, and welcome to AutoZone’s 2021 Fourth Quarter Earnings Release Conference Call. [Operator Instructions] A question-and-answer session will follow the formal presentation. [Operator Instructions]

It is now my pleasure to introduce Bill Rhodes, Chief Executive Officer. Thank you. You may begin.

Brian CampbellVice President, Treasurer, Investor Relations and Tax

Before we begin, please note that today’s call includes forward-looking statements that are subject to the Safe Harbor provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Forward-looking statements are not guarantees of future performance. Please refer to this morning’s press release and the Company’s most recent Annual Report on Form 10-K and other filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission for a discussion of important risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from expectations. Forward-looking statements speak only as of the date made and the Company undertakes no obligation to update such statements.

Today’s call will also include certain non-GAAP measures, a reconciliation of non-GAAP to GAAP financial measures can be found in our press release.

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Good morning, and thank you for joining us today for AutoZone’s 2021 fourth quarter conference call. With me today are Jamere Jackson, Executive Vice President, Chief Financial Officer; and Brian Campbell, Vice President, Treasurer, Investor Relations and Tax.

Regarding the fourth quarter, I hope you had an opportunity to read our press release and learn about the quarter’s results. If not the press release, along with slides complementing our comments today are available on our website www.autozone.com under the Investor Relations link. Please click on quarterly earnings conference calls to see them.

As I have said previously throughout the pandemic, we could not deliver the kind of results we have without the outstanding performance of our entire team, especially our store and supply chain AutoZoners’. As our sales volumes have remained at historic all time highs, our AutoZoners’ continue to enthusiastically meet and embrace the challenge. As we say they are going the extra mile for our customers and we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude. Also want to reiterate our highest priority remains being committed to keeping all of our customers and AutoZoners safe. Thank you, AutoZoners again, you are remarkable.

This morning we will review our overall same-store sales DIY versus DIFM trends, sales cadence [Technical Issues] over the 16-weeks of the quarter, merchandise categories that drove our performance and any regional discrepancies. We will also share how inflation is affecting our costs and retails and how we think that will impact our business for the remainder of the calendar year.

Okay. On to our sales results. Our domestic same-store sales were an impressive 4.3% this quarter on top of last year’s historic 21.8% growth. This time last year, we had no vision, none of delivering a positive comp this quarter, but our team once again performed at an exceptionally high level. Congratulations again to AutoZoners everywhere.

Our growth rates for retail and commercial were both strong with domestic commercial growth north of 21%. Our commercial business set a record this quarter with $1.2 billion in sales for the quarter, an incredible accomplishment. Additionally, we reached a new milestone in commercial sales surpassing $3 billion for the year, finishing with over $3.3 billion in annual sales versus $2.7 billion in sales a year ago, an impressive 23% increase. We set new records in annual sales volumes per store reaching $12,600 for the year, up from $10,600 just last year. We continue to execute well in commercial and we couldn’t be more proud of our team’s recent success.

I’m also very proud of our organization on our domestic DIY performance. We ran a roughly flat comp this quarter after increasing well over 20% in last year’s fourth quarter. While our DIY two-year stack comp decelerated some from the third quarter, we were expecting substantially more deceleration as we got further and further from the last round of stimulus back in March. We were quite pleased with the stability of our two-year stack same-store sales. In commercial on a two-year basis, our sales were very consistent with last year’s performance — sorry, last quarter’s performance.

Now let’s focus on our sales cadence. This quarter stretched from early May to the end of August. The first eight weeks of the quarter, our comp was 3.1%. In the last eight weeks, our comp averaged 5.5%. The strength in the back half of the quarter was attributable to easier comparisons to last year. Given the dynamics of the past 18 months, we like others who benefited from the lumpiness of the pandemic sales, believe it is more insightful to look at a two-year stack comp.

For Q4, our two year comp was 26%. On a two-year basis, our cadence for each four week period of the quarter was 26.8%, 28.2%, 25.5% and 24%. Our two year comp sales trends were remarkably strong and fairly consistent across the quarter. Regarding whether we experience a noticeably warmer summer out West and in previous years, which helped our sales. But we experienced a milder summer in the Midwest and Northeast, which drove our sales to underperform the chain there. Overall, weather impacts were neutral on our performance.

Regarding the quarter’s traffic versus ticket growth, our retail traffic was down roughly 4%, while our retail ticket was up 3%. This was expected a stimulus stay at home orders and closures of big box retail automotive service departments that drove outsized traffic last year. Our commercial business saw the vast majority of growth come from transaction growth from new and existing customers. It was encouraging for us to see sales trend remains strong this quarter and we like the momentum we are seeing in both domestic businesses heading into fiscal year ’22.

During the quarter, there were some geographic regions that did better than others as there always are. Across both our retail and commercial customer basis, we saw the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern markets underperform, roughly 400 basis points in comp versus the remainder of the country. The data suggests that we have actually gained some share in these markets. However, we believe the milder summer weather was a large contributor to our sales comp results there. And across the country in retail, our share trends remained strong despite the reopening of big box retailers automotive service departments that were closed this time last year.

We have been very pleased that we have retained the roughly 10% market share we gained in our retail sales floor business last year. Our number one priority continues to be the health, safety and well-being of our customers and AutoZoners. On Q2’s call, we shared that we would provide every AutoZoner with a $100 incentive once they completed their vaccination for COVID-19, that’s every AutoZoner including part-timers. This was the logical next step in our efforts to provide a safe working and shopping environment as we have with our ongoing PPP efforts. We spent another $2.7 million in the fourth quarter reimbursing our AutoZoners for the vaccine.

I continue to be inspired by our Board and management team’s commitment to doing what is right, putting safety first, while caring deeply for our AutoZoners. We are strongly encouraging our AutoZoners to get the vaccine as our culture and values of taking care of one another have been on display for the past 18 months.

Now let’s move into more specifics on our performance for the quarter. Our same-store sales were up 4.3% versus last year’s fourth quarter. Our net income was $786 million and our EPS was $35.72 a share, 15.5% above last year’s fourth quarter. Our domestic retail same-store sales were down slightly for the quarter, while our commercial business remains remarkably strong.

Commercial total sales grew approximately 21%. We averaged $74 million in weekly sales, which was approximately $14,400 in sales per program per week, which was easily an all-time record for us. The initiatives that we have in place are meaningfully helping our commercial business. I’ll remind you that this is a highly fragmented $75 billion market and we believe our product and service offerings provide us a tremendous opportunity to significantly grow sales and market share over time.

Next I’ll talk about trends across our merchandise categories, particularly in the retail business. Our sales floor categories continue to outpace the hard part categories with categories like wipers, fluids and lighting, all showing strength. Our hard parts business was in line with our expectations and ran roughly flat with last year. We were especially pleased as last year our hard parts business was very strong, especially in categories like batteries. We believe our hard parts business will continue to strengthen as our customers drive more.

Let me also address [Technical Issues] we are seeing from inflation and pricing in our space. This quarter we saw our retail sales impacted positively by about 2% year-over-year from inflation, while our cost of goods was basically flat. We believe both numbers will be higher in the first quarter as cost increases in many merchandise categories work their way through the system. We can see low single-digit inflation in retails as rising raw material, labor and transportation costs are impacting us and our suppliers. We have no way to say how long it will last, but our industry has been disciplined about pricing for decades.

While we continue to be encouraged with the current sales environment, it is difficult to forecast near-term sales. What I will say is, this past quarter sales were better than we expected and we exited the fiscal year with strong fundamentals in our business. For FY ’22, our sales performance will be led by the continued strength in our commercial business as we execute on our initiatives. Both DIY and Commercial have gained considerable share that we are maintaining and we believe that we are in an industry that is positioned for solid growth for the long-term.

We will earn our fair share, and we hope to exceed expectations. In addition, we continue to believe our products and services will be in high demand during more difficult economic times and this resiliency gives us significant confidence about our future prospects. As we progress through the year, we will as always be transparent about what we are seeing and provide color on our markets and outlook as trends emerge.

Now I’ll turn the call over to Jamere Jackson. Jamere?

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

Thanks, Bill, and good morning, everyone. As Bill mentioned, we had another great quarter. Our growth initiatives are continuing to deliver strong results and the efforts of our AutoZoners in our stores and distribution centers have enabled us to maintain strong results.

To start this morning, let me take a few minutes to elaborate on the specifics in our P&L for Q4. For the quarter, total auto parts sales, which includes our Domestic, Mexico and Brazil stores were $4.8 [Phonetic] billion, up 8%. And for the total year, our total auto parts sales were $14.4 billion, up 15.9%.

Now let me give a little more color on sales and our growth initiatives. Starting with our commercial business, for the fourth quarter our domestic DIFM sales increased 21% to $1.2 billion and were up 31% on a two year stack basis. Sales to our DIFM customers represented 24% of our total sales and our weekly sales per program were $14,400, up 18% as we averaged $74 million in total weekly commercial sales. Once again, our growth was broad-based as national and local accounts all grew over 20% in the quarter.

For the full-year, our commercial sales grew 22.6% and 29% on a two-year stack basis. Our execution of our commercial acceleration initiatives is delivering exceptional results as we focus on building a faster growing business. The disciplined investments we’re making are helping us grow share and we’re making tremendous progress and growing our business in this highly fragmented portion of the market.

We now have our commercial program in over 86% of our domestic stores and we’re focused on building our business with national, regional and local accounts. This quarter, we opened 72 net new programs, finishing with 5,179 total programs. We continue to leverage our DIY infrastructure and increased our share of wallet with existing customers. In fiscal year ’22, commercial growth will lead the way.

Our growth strategies continue to work as we continue to grow share. We are confident in our strategies and execution, and believe we will continue to gain share. We remain focused on delivering improvements in the quality of our parts, particularly with our Duralast brand, making improvements in our assortment, maintaining competitive pricing and staying committed to providing exceptional service. These core focus areas have enabled us to drive double-digit sales growth for the past five quarters and positioned us well in the marketplace.

As we move forward, we’re focused on our core initiatives that we believe will accelerate our sales even further. Let me highlight one key initiatives that is driving our performance and positioning us for an even brighter future in our commercial and retail businesses, and that’s our mega hub strategy. Our mega hub strategy is giving us tremendous momentum and we are doubling down. We now have 58 mega hub locations and we expect to open approximately 20 more over the next 12 months. As a reminder, our mega hubs typically carry roughly 100,000 SKUs and drive tremendous sales lift inside the store box, as well as serve as the fulfillment source for other stores.

The expansion of coverage and parts availability continues to deliver a meaningful sales lift to both our commercial and DIY business, and we’re testing greater density of mega hubs to drive even better sales results. With this effort, we are leveraging sophisticated analytics to help us expand our market reach, give us closer proximity to our customers and improve our product availability and delivery times.

I will remind you that our current mega hub strategy envisions our expansion to a total of 100 to 110 mega hubs. However, as these assets continue to outperform our expectations, we would expect to expand significantly further. We are excited about this work and its ability to further accelerate our commercial growth. All of our efforts are building meaningful competitive advantage and give us tremendous confidence in our ability to create a faster growing business.

On the retail side of our business, our domestic retail business was down just 40 basis points, but up 23.4% on a two year stack. For the full-year, the retail business was up 11.2% and 18.7% on a two year stack basis. The business has been remarkably resilient as we have gained and maintained nearly 300 points of market share since the start of the pandemic. We are excited about the initiatives that drove the tremendous sales and share growth and the relentless focus on execution by our AutoZoners in our stores and distribution centers has been remarkable. We are winning in the marketplace and the execution of our AutoZoners, who are taking care of our customers remains a key competitive advantage.

As we exit fiscal ’21, I’m really pleased with the competitive positioning of our DIY business and our outlook going forward. The work we have done on improving the customer shopping experience, expanding assortment, leveraging our hub and mega hub network and maintaining competitive pricing have led to tremendous results over the last two years. DIY has been a strong contributor to the growth of our company and while comps are difficult, because of our strong past performance, the fundamentals of our business have never been stronger. Our strategy and execution are delivering solid results.

Now, I’ll say a few words regarding our international business. We continue to be pleased with the progress we’re making in Mexico and Brazil. During the quarter, we opened 29 new stores in Mexico to finish with 664 stores and five new stores in Brazil to finish with 52. On a constant currency basis, we saw accelerated sales growth in both countries. Most importantly, as those economies stabilize, we remain committed to our store opening schedules in both markets and expect both to be significant contributors to sales and earnings growth in the future.

Now let me spend a few minutes on the P&L and gross margins. For the quarter, our gross margin was down 82 basis points, driven primarily by the accelerated growth in our commercial business, where the shift in mix coupled with the investment in our initiatives drove margin pressure, but increased our gross profit dollars by 6.4%. I mentioned on last quarter’s call that we expected to have our gross margin down in a similar range to our third quarter, where we were down 118 basis points.

However, the team has been focused on driving margin improvements, primarily through pricing actions that offset inflation to drive a better-than-expected outcome. As Bill mentioned earlier in the call, we’re beginning to see cost inflation in certain product categories along with rising transportation costs. To be clear, overall we have pricing power and consistent with prior inflationary cycles, we have been successful thus far at passing these higher cross through our retails.

Overall, the industry pricing remains rational and we’re pricing accordingly. All of the actions we are taking have resulting [Phonetic] in us growing our DIY and DIFM businesses at a significantly faster rate than the overall market and we’re committed to capturing our fair share, while improving our competitive positioning in a disciplined way. We should expect our margins in the first quarter to be down in a similar range to the fourth quarter. We are however focused on driving new customers to AutoZone and over time growing absolute gross profit dollars at a faster than historic rate in our total auto parts operating segment.

Moving to operating expenses. Our expenses were, up 9.2% versus last year’s Q4 as SG&A as a percentage of sales deleveraged 33 basis points. The deleverage was primarily driven by higher payroll expenses to support our sales and customer service initiatives and higher IT investments that underpin our growth initiatives. These dynamics were partially offset by lower pandemic-related expenses in the previous year.

While our SG&A dollar growth rate has been higher than historical averages, we’ve been focused on maintaining high levels of customer service during a period of accelerated growth and taking care of our AutoZoners’ during these difficult times. We will continue to be disciplined on SG&A growth as we move forward and manage expenses in line with sales growth over time.

Moving to the rest of the P&L, EBIT for the quarter was just over $1 billion, up 2.6% versus prior year’s quarter, driven by strong topline growth. EBIT for fiscal year ’21 was just over $2.9 billion, up 21.8% versus fiscal year ’20. Interest expense for the quarter was just over $58 million, down 11.5% from Q4 a year ago as our debt outstanding at the end of the quarter was just under $5.3 billion versus just over $5.5 billion last year. We’re planning interest in the $46 million to $48 million range for the first quarter of fiscal 2022 versus $46 million in last year’s first quarter.

For the quarter, our tax rate was 20.3% versus 22.3% in last year’s fourth quarter. This quarter’s rate benefited 215 basis points from stock options exercised, while last year it benefited 35 basis points. For the first quarter of 2022, we suggest investors model us at approximately 23.6% before any exemptions on credits due to stock option exercises.

Moving to net income and EPS. Net income for the quarter was $786 million, up 6.1% versus last year’s fourth quarter. Our diluted share count of 22 million was lower by 8.1% from last year’s fourth quarter. The combination of higher earnings and lower share count drove earnings per share for the quarter to $35.72, up 15.5% over the prior year’s fourth quarter. Net income per share for fiscal year ’21 was $95.19, up a remarkable 32.3%, reflecting our outstanding topline performance and lower share count.

Now let me talk about our cash flow. For the fourth quarter, we generated $1.3 billion of operating cash. Our operating cash flow results continue to benefit from strong sales and earnings previously discussed. You should expect us to be an incredibly strong cash flow generator going forward, and we remain committed to returning meaningful amounts of cash to our shareholders.

Regarding our balance sheet, we now have nearly $1.2 billion in cash on the balance sheet and our liquidity position remains strong. We are also managing our inventory well, as our inventory per store growth was up four-tenths of a percent versus Q4 last year. Total inventory increased 3.7% over the same period last year, driven by new stores.

Net inventory defined as merchandise inventories less accounts payable on a per store basis was a negative $203,000 versus negative $104,000 last year and negative $167,000 last quarter. As a result, accounts payable as a percent of gross inventory finished the quarter at 129.6% versus last year’s Q4 of 115.3%.

Lastly, I’ll spend a moment on capital allocation and our share repurchase program. We repurchased $900 million of AutoZone stock in the quarter. As of the end of the fiscal quarter, we had approximately 21.1 million shares outstanding. At quarter end, we had just over $418 million remaining under our share buyback authorization and over $900 million of excess cash.

For the full-year, we bought back $3.4 billion of stock or approximately 2.6 million shares. The powerful free cash flow we have generated this year combined with excess cash carried over from last year has enabled us to buyback over 11% of our shares outstanding at the beginning of the year. We have bought back nearly 90% of the shares outstanding of our stock since our buyback inception in 1998, while investing in our existing assets and growing our business. We remain committed to this disciplined capital allocation approach where we expect to have powerful free cash flows that will enable us to invest in the business and return meaningful amounts of cash to shareholders.

So, to wrap up, we had another very strong quarter highlighted by strong comp sales, which drove a 6.1% increase in net income and a 15.5% increase in EPS. We are driving long-term shareholder value by investing in our growth initiatives driving robust earnings and cash and returning excess cash to our shareholders. Our strategy is working and I have tremendous confidence in our ability to drive significant and ongoing value for our shareholder.

Now, I will turn it back to Bill.

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Thank you, Jamere. Nice job. Also congratulations on your one-year AutoZone anniversary that you celebrated last week.

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

It’s been fantastic.

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

As we start a new fiscal year, I’d like to take a moment to discuss our operating theme for the new year. It is go the extra mile, and we will be hosting our Annual National Sales Meeting here in Memphis next week to formally announce this theme. Being in person for the first time in two years, yes, we are going to host our AutoZoners, who are vaccinated and wearing mask in person, and we are going to celebrate all they have accomplished over the past two years. I can’t tell you how excited I am about next week.

2022 will again be focused on superior customer service and flawless execution. In fiscal ’22, we are launching some very exciting initiatives. We will be announcing some significant expansions to our supply chain to fuel the growth of our Domestic and Mexico businesses. We are also targeting to open 20 new domestic mega hubs in the US that will enhance our ability and support growth in our retail and commercial businesses. We will open approximately 200 new stores throughout the Americas with notable acceleration in our Brazil business. These capacity expansion investments reflect our bullishness on our industry and our own growth prospects. We are being disciplined, yet we are being aggressive.

Lastly, I want to reiterate how proud I am of our team across the Board, for their commitment to servicing our customers and doing so in a very safe manner. At the start of the pandemic last year, we could never have guessed the positive impact it would had on our sales. First and foremost, our focus will be on keeping our AutoZoners and customers safe, while providing our customers with their automotive needs.

And secondly, we must continuously challenge ourselves during these extraordinary times to position our company for even greater future success. We know that investors will ultimately measure us by what our future cash flows look like three to five years from now and we welcome that challenge. I continue to be bullish on our industry and in particular on AutoZone.

Now we’d like to open up the call for questions.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

Thank you. We will now be conducting a question-and-answer session. [Operator Instructions] Our first question is coming from the line of Bret Jordan with Jefferies. Please proceed with your questions.

Bret JordanJefferies Securities — Analyst

Hey, good morning, guys.

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Good morning, Bret.

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

Good morning, Bret.

Bret JordanJefferies Securities — Analyst

On the share gains, could you give us a little bit more color, I guess, as far as where the share is coming from? Is it warehouse distributors or from other two-step distributors? And then, I guess, are there particular categories that you’re seeing relative outperformance? And then, I guess, the cadence you talked about maintaining the 10 points of share you had picked up last year, is that slowed post-COVID disruption or are you still seeing the share gains [Technical Issues] continuing?

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yes, terrific. So, I’m going to bifurcate it and talk about retail and then come back and talk about commercial, and then Jamere if you jump in and clarify anything if I missed it, so I had a mask on. First of all, on the retail business, we have very quantifiable data that we received. It is not on the hard parts business. So, think about it as everything in front of the parts counter including batteries and spark and plus batteries and spark plugs. So we have real live data that is a larger set of data than just our traditional close in competitors. So, we have facts there. We grew share very significantly this time last year.

And as we began to lap those largest share gains in our company’s history, we anticipated we might lose some of that share. We haven’t lost any of it. I mean, it’s on the margin, it’s slightly positive, slightly negative month-on-month, but we basically grew our share in that data set by 10%. So we moved from roughly 30% share to 33% share. I’ve never seen anything like that and I’m really proud of our organization for sustaining that share over time.

On the commercial side of the business, we don’t have that kind of quantifiable data, but we obviously look at what’s going on in the overall market. We look what’s going on with our close in competitors and other competitors and it’s pretty clear when you’re growing at these kind of growth rates that we are significantly outgrowing the market probably by multiples, two or three times the market growth. Where all is it coming from? You probably has good insights into that as we do, we look at the publicly available data, we see that we’re doing very, very well in both the retail business and the commercial business. I think the stand out for us right now is the growth that we have in the commercial business.

And our belief is, it’s because of not the pandemic, it’s because of the initiatives that we’ve embarked on over the last three years as we implemented this latest round of strategy work, where we’re really working on making sure we’ve got the best parts coverage. We’re continuing to amplify the Duralast brand. We’ve got great people doing great things. We’re rolling out our mega hub strategy. Now we’ve implemented some technology to help us be more efficient and we’ve also made sure that we’re priced right, not necessarily versus our close in competitors, but we’ve looked deeper and looked at the warehouse distributors and making sure that our value proposition is appropriate for the kind of service that we’re delivering. So those are my thoughts.

Jamere, do you have anything to add?

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

Yes, I think, a couple of things stands out to me. One is that as you mentioned, our business has been remarkably resilient and you combine that with a great execution that we have and it’s driving exceptionally strong results. As we get further away from the lumpiness of the stimulus payments, I mean, it’s clear that our share gains have been maintained. Bill talked about what we’re seeing on the sales floor market share, we’ve got great results and readouts from our loyalty programs that give us a lot of confidence and our teams are doing a great job of execution.

On the commercial side, we’re continuing to see those significant share gains behind the business that — or behind the initiatives that Bill talked about, and a couple of things really stand out to me. It’s broad base, so it’s national accounts and it’s local accounts that are growing over 20%. We’ve seen the national snapped back over the last year as car counts are up and staffing has improved and miles driven is improving. And our team is doing a fantastic job of executing with those customers. So, we have a tremendous amount of confidence as we move forward into the year and this is helping us create a faster growing business.

Bret JordanJefferies Securities — Analyst

Great. Thank you. And Jamere, just a quick question on the accounts payable, that’s a record at 129% of inventory. Is there a number or a range we should think about that being in going forward? Can it go higher than this?

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

It’s benefited over the last year quite frankly, because our turns have been up significantly and in an accelerated sales environment. We don’t expect it to go much higher than where we currently are, but we’re continuing to do all the things that we can to manage working capital both with our suppliers and with our partners and — but I wouldn’t expect it to go much higher just based on the tremendous amount of turns that we’ve had over the last year or so.

Bret JordanJefferies Securities — Analyst

All right. Great. Thank you.

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Thank you, Bret.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question is coming from the line of Greg Melich with Evercore ISI. Please proceed with your questions.

Greg MelichEvercore ISI — Analyst

Hi. Thanks. I have really two questions. One, you mentioned 200 stores in the Americas. Could you sort of walk us through the breakdown of what would be domestic and in those other markets? And basically is that a run rate we should use going forward if you look about — look at the opportunities? And I have a follow-up.

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

Yes, you can expect us to be in that zip code, probably for the next couple of years or so, roughly two-thirds of that or more are going to be in sort of the US market, if you will. We’ve been looking at doing 150 to 170 stores or so based on the opportunities that we see in the marketplace. You could see us do 30 to 50 stores in Mexico, depending on the market conditions or so and then the remainder coming from Brazil.

I think the good news for us is that we see tremendous market opportunities both in the US and in Mexico. And we talked about on our previous earnings call that we’ve been testing our market potential in Brazil for really the last decade or so, and we think Brazil can be a very big market for us. So, we’ve got great potential there. We’ve made some leadership changes as well. So, Tom Newbern is leading our international efforts going forward. Tom is a fantastic operator, has a ton of experience, and we look forward to that being a much bigger part of our story and our strategy as we go forward.

Greg MelichEvercore ISI — Analyst

Great. And the second question is linked to product availability and inflation. I think you mentioned that your costs are going up, industries are rationally passing through. Was it fair to say the fourth quarter that inflation is maybe now running three to four in the topline? And how do you think about that going forward?

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yes. We’re not seeing it at that level yet, Greg. I think we will see it at that level. As you know, it takes some time for those price increases to work themselves through the system. And right now is a little bit different in that you’re seeing direct product cost inflation, but the hyperinflation that we’re seeing frankly is in the transportation or not directly in all the product costs. And so we’re having to be thoughtful about how do we ultimately pass those price increases or cost increases on through retail prices in both the domestic — both the retail and the commercial businesses. We think that you will see it more in the range you’re talking about in Q1 and Q2, if not even a little bit higher, but that seems to be where we’re headed.

Greg MelichEvercore ISI — Analyst

Got it. And product supply, there hasn’t been an issue in terms of getting products?

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

No, there are absolutely significant issues in getting products, thus we are running the lowest level of in-stock that I can ever remember, it’s 3% or 4% below where we normally run, it moves from one category to the other. This is the most difficult supply chain environment that I have ever seen. But I will tell you, our supply chain and merchants are working it so well and so closely with our vendors and finding new suppliers along the way where we have to in the spot market or other areas that I think we are doing competitively. And when I say competitive, I’m talking about retail in general. I’m very proud of where we are, but very dissatisfied with it on a historical basis.

Greg MelichEvercore ISI — Analyst

Got it. But competitively you’re feeling you are in a better than typical spot in your space, just that is tight out there.

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yes. And Greg, I think we looked at our outperformance versus the market in both retail and commercial. The one piece that we really didn’t highlight that I would highlight is AutoZone has been known as an execution machine for decades long before I got here and I think that our core flawless execution has been a big contributor to our success over the last 18 months in these uncertain times.

Greg MelichEvercore ISI — Analyst

Great. Well, congrats to you and the team.

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Thank you very much.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question is coming from the line of Chris Horvers with JPMorgan. Please proceed with your questions.

Chris HorversJPMorgan — Analyst

Thanks. Good morning, guys. So, you spoke to two-year comp trends over a while with some moderation in July and then in August. Can you share what that trend look like for the DIY versus the commercial side of the businesses? Or what drove that to moderation? And then related to that, as you think about August, given the easier comparing DIY did that flip back to positive on a one-year basis?

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

Yes. So if you look at the trends that we saw, I mean, we saw most of the moderation obviously in our DIY business where our comps were significantly higher last year in the fourth quarter. But a couple of things stand out to us again as we move further and further away from the lumpiness of stimulus payments that we talked about, our business was pretty resilient. And so our business actually outperformed our expectations. Our commercial business has been just remarkably resilient as well.

And if you think about the commercial business, it’s a lot stickier. The relationships that we built with our commercial customers is driving that business. And as we see the macro environment improve, those are things like car counts, those are things like miles driven, the fact that our commercial customers, our staffing — have been able to get their staffing levels back to where they need to be. That business has been very, very strong as we exited the quarter. As has been our past practice, we typically don’t talk about what we see in the early innings of the following quarter, but what I will say is that as we exited the fourth quarter, we are very pleased with the trends that we were seeing, and it gives us a lot of confidence about not only the first quarter, but the year in total.

Chris HorversJPMorgan — Analyst

And then, so the DIY — in that last four weeks that you spoke to, the DIY turned back to being positive?

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

It was close to be flattish in that last four weeks or so. And again when we get to the first quarter, we’ve got much easier comps, if you will. So that ought to give you some idea of what we’re seeing in terms of trends moving into the first quarter.

Chris HorversJPMorgan — Analyst

Makes a lot of sense. So, I guess, on the pricing side, so just to summarize there, it doesn’t sound like you’ve seen any sort of fall out, because of unemployment insurance expiring here in September. On the price side, you’ve invested in price in DIY to retain the share — commercial to retain the share. How do you feel about where your price gaps are in the market currently? And are things playing out the plan, i.e., there is not necessarily a step-up here from a price investment perspective that you feel you need to make in order to continue these great share trends?

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

Yes. We believe the price investments are behind us. When we look at the moves that we made last year, we’re going to start to anniversary those going into this year. And as we said, the strategy is working. And we — you see it in the numbers we put on the board in terms of our DIY results and our commercial results. And price has just been one element of the strategy. So all the other things that we’ve talked about from an execution standpoint and making sure that we have the right assortments, the investments that we’ve made in our products, the technology that we have on the commercial side. Those things combined with competitive pricing have underpinned the growth story that you see here.

So, as we’re in this inflationary environment, as Bill mentioned, we’re being very disciplined. We’re moving retails up on the commercial and DIY side. The industry has been very rational, but we’re maintaining those competitive price differentials, if you will, that have underpinned the share growth that we’ve seen over the last year or so. And that’s what’s really important. It’s not an absolute price point, if you will, but it’s a relative price point. But as we have opportunities to take price up, we’re certainly doing that.

Chris HorversJPMorgan — Analyst

Awesome. Have a great fall. Thanks very much.

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question is coming from the line of Michael Lasser with UBS. Please proceed with your questions.

Michael LasserUBS — Analyst

Good morning. Thanks a lot for taking my questions. Bill, the industry have seen tremendous DIY growth over the last several quarters as consumers have largely been staying at home, have had more time on their hands to do projects on their cars. Why wouldn’t the industry give a lot of that volume back as we get back to some sense of normalcy? And if that’s the case, how can [Technical Issues] manage its P&L to maintain the algorithm that the market, the customers seeing from AutoZone?

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Terrific question, Michael. I’ll take the first part. I’ll let Jamere figure out the second part. On the sales side, your logic is very sound. If you look at it, our business overall is up roughly 25% versus pre-pandemic levels. You’ve been watching this industry for a long time, I’ve been watching it longer, and it’s generally a nice grower, but in the, you know, the industry grows around 4% a year, the growth of 25% over 18 months is pretty phenomenal.

I think, as we said in our prepared comments, we expected our sales to step down some this summer. We saw the last round of stimulus in March. Every time we’ve seen stimulus, we can see a direct correlation to our sales really grow at an exponential rate when that happens and then tail off some. But they never go back to where they were. And we spent a lot of time talking about the share gains that we have seen, because we do think that, that is beyond what’s going on with COVID. I think it’s somewhat related to COVID and that our teams have done a really, really good job of making sure that we have product, of making sure that our customers and our AutoZoners feel safe in our stores.

I would encourage — we’ve spent a lot of money, making sure that we create a safe environment in our stores. And I would encourage you all to go in our stores and go look at us versus our competitors go look at us versus other retailers. It is a very — in this interesting time a very comfortable shopping environment as comfortable as you can find, I believe. And so I think that customers have changed their shopping behaviors. They are not necessarily wanting to go to a big box store. I think there is some online retailers that de-emphasize this category during the pandemic.

And fortunately for us, we don’t give guidance because it would be very difficult to tell you what’s going to happen in Q3 or Q4, just like it would have been difficult to tell you this time last year what would happen in Q4 this year. We are very confident that we will win in the marketplace by leveraging our flawless execution. The industry trends will be the industry trends, but I would refer you all back to think about on a long-term historical basis, there have been before this period three times in my career where I’ve seen substantially above industry performance or industry performance above the norm. And that was a ’93 and ’94, ’01 and ’02, ’09, ’10 and ’11, all of those were coming out of very difficult economic environments. This pandemic seems to be behaving a lot like that just in an exponential fashion.

What was the interesting thing out of those most — the best times that we’ve seen was following each one of those times, we didn’t step back down as an industry to where the performance was before. Will we have some step down as an industry? Maybe, but I don’t expect it and I certainly don’t expect AutoZone to go back to the levels that we were performing at before. Will it step back a little bit? Maybe, I don’t know, because this is unchartered waters, but I do think we have reintroduced ourselves to some customers and I think our existing customers have started relying on us on a more frequent basis and I believe many of those shopping habits will have changed forever.

On the commercial side of the business, I think it’s somewhat related to the pandemic. I think we’re winning in a big way in the marketplace. I think we have changed our competitive position, because of all the initiatives that we have. So I am, and I think we are quite bullish on the long-term of the commercial business.

Jamere, I will let you talk about the P&L.

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

Yes, from a P&L standpoint, here’s the interesting thing for us. I mean, we have a tremendous amount of confidence in our business going forward. And if you recall, this is a business that has an algorithm that works at low to mid single-digit topline growth with high margins that splits off a lot of cash that we invest in our existing assets, we invest to grow our business and we return a lot of that to shareholders.

Over the last couple of years or so, we’ve had the opportunity to have outsized topline performance and you’ve seen us ratchet up the things that we’ve done. So, we’ve increased the level of investments that we’ve made in our existing infrastructure. We talked about what we’re doing to expand the capacity in our distribution centers in our supply chain. Bill talked about it in his comments this morning. You’ve seen us invest in our growth initiatives, and we’ve had an outsized return to shareholders. So the algorithm works.

It’s worked for us in the past. It’s worked for us through this environment where we’ve had accelerated sales, where we’ve done even more than we’ve done in the past. We’ve got a tremendous amount of confidence in our growth prospects going forward. We’re going to have tremendous financial firepower to grow this business and return cash to shareholders and that quite frankly is the AutoZone algorithm.

Michael LasserUBS — Analyst

Very helpful. And my follow-up question is you seem to suggest that your gross margin is starting to stabilize, either because you have lapsed some of the price investments that you’ve made? Or there is other factors that will also contribute. Your gross margin is on pace to be 20% — 52.7% this year, which is down almost 100 basis points from the peak. So, are you suggesting that you can get back to the peak level? Or now that you’ve rebased it lower, this is the right way to think about the gross margin moving forward?

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yes, I think we’re not projecting that we’re going to get back to any particular level, Michael. I think what we are saying is for the most part, the actions that we have taken in retail are done. Many of those actions are behind us. We are very pleased with the competitive position that we have. We’ve always been pleased with our competitive position with our close-in competitors, but we’ve looked a little bit beyond that to those competitors that I’ll call are half a step away.

In the commercial business, we took much more significant pricing actions. And they were on the margin in DIY. They were fairly significant in commercial, but we finished those actions at the beginning of this past quarter, call it, in June. So — and those took some time to roll in and we started it with six markets and we went to 14 markets and we rolled into the chain. So we’re beginning to annualize the first smaller tranches of that and we will annualize that in the beginning of next year’s fourth quarter.

We feel really good, really good about the actions that we’ve taken. They are an element, not the element of our strategy. But as you can see in our commercial performance, we’re winning in the marketplace in a big way. So we will annualize that in nine months or so. We do not have the next tranche of pricing strategies that we are planning to do in DIY or in commercial. This was — this is what we wanted to do and I think we’re very pleased with how both have played out.

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

Yes. The only thing that I’ll add there is that our core capability inside the company hasn’t changed. The things that we’ve historically worked on in terms of assortment, awesome that our merchants have done over the years, the things that we see in terms of the industry’s pricing dynamics. Those things haven’t changed. So the core fundamentals and the core capability of the business hasn’t changed over time. I’ve often said that as we go through these dynamics, we tend to look at gross margins and pricing at a point in time. But over the long-term, we’ve been very, very disciplined as we’ve seen inflationary impacts at the business, we’ve been very disciplined about raising pricing and I’ve often said that inflation is our friend in that regard.

So our core capabilities to expand margins hasn’t changed. What we’ve done, as Bill said, is we made some fundamental changes in terms of where we needed to be competitively in certain categories that has improved the growth rate of our business and nothing else about our businesses has changed. So all the great work that we’ve done in the past, we still have that capability going forward.

Michael LasserUBS — Analyst

Very helpful. Thank you so much.

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. Our next question is coming from the line of Simeon Gutman with Morgan Stanley. Please proceed with your questions.

Simeon GutmanMorgan Stanley — Analyst

Hey, everyone. Nice results. Maybe continuing on the gross margin thread, maybe I can paraphrase what I heard it from the last answer, which is after these price investments we sort of — that’s the new base and then from there, we could move back into where we were pre these price investments, which could have been up a little, down a little, sort of subject to the normal. Jamere, you said inflation, maybe mix issues. But is there anything different about the go forward once we lap these price investments and how you think the gross margin progresses, because I think previously — it’s flattish, maybe even up a little bit, is there anything wrong with that thought process in the out-year?

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

I think you said it better than I did, Simeon. The only thing that I would add to it is, and you mentioned mix, if our commercial business continues to grow at a substantially accelerated rate versus our retail business that will provide incremental headwind.

Simeon GutmanMorgan Stanley — Analyst

Okay. Got it. Okay, that’s fair. And then my follow-up maybe it is for you, Bill, because you had the quote in the press release about aspiring or aiming for growth prospects in this current fiscal year. I assume you’re mentioning — it’s meant to be sales. Curious if it can be sales and EBIT or one could be without the other and then ’22 is a complex year, because of what you’re lapping. Is there any reason we shouldn’t be back to algo by ’23? The only thing different I heard on the call was just additional capital investments, Bill, that you mentioned in terms of investment, not sure if those hit the P&L any different, but if you can speak about theoretically the out-year progression?

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yes. It’s an interesting way out. I would have told you FY ’22 would have been the normalized year this time last year, Simeon, but I just can’t tell you what’s going to happen in the environment. I mean, we’re sitting here take — we’ve got people with mask on. Jamere and I are taking our mask on and off to answer questions. I would have never dreamt we were here in June, right. We all took our mask off and we’re done with them, and here we are with Delta variant. So, I can’t tell you what’s going to be in front of us.

I do think the algorithm of the company is not going to change. The only thing that you highlight that is different right now is we will spend a little bit more on capex. One of the things that we’ve learned is that we probably operated our supply chain to the optimal level as I keep calling it to three decimal points. We didn’t plan our supply chain to have sustained 25% surge in volume for 18 months. That has put an enormous strain on our facilities, more importantly, on our people.

So as we think about the future, we’re going to be a little bit more aggressive, we’re going to have a little bit more capacity in our supply chain to handle the volatility that we have seen for the first time in my career over this period of time. So that will be over a couple of year period, probably a couple of hundred million dollars a year in incremental capital that we’ll spend. But as we’ve said all along, our capital allocation strategy is, one, continue to invest in the existing assets that we have to have them perform at an optimal level; two, invest in every growth aspect that we can that will provide us a reasonable invest — IRR; and then three, whatever we have left over will return to shareholders. That algorithm is going to stay the same.

I hope in 2023, we’re back to whatever normal is. It will be interesting to see what happens in the sales environment as we enter whatever the new normal is. I can understand people think that the sales environment might be challenged as we lap these enormous growth in FY ’20 and ’21, I would have thought the same thing a year ago. I’m getting more and more confident that some of this is structural and some of this is permanent. What percentage? Your guess is as good as mine, because I’ve never seen a global pandemic before.

Simeon GutmanMorgan Stanley — Analyst

Got it. Okay. Good luck. Thanks.

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Thank you, Simeon.

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

Thanks.

Operator

Thank you. Our final question is coming from the line of Liz Suzuki with Bank of America. Please proceed with your questions.

Elizabeth SuzukiBank of America Merrill Lynch — Analyst

Great. Thank you. So, I guess, first just a question on same SKU inflation, you mentioned that the retail business had about 2 percentage points of benefit there. Was that consistent in the commercial channel as well?

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

Yes, we saw similar inflation in both retail and commercial.

Elizabeth SuzukiBank of America Merrill Lynch — Analyst

Great. And as we think about just modeling the impact of cost increases, when did you really start to experience an acceleration of cost inflation? And as you sell out that inventory, could there be a period where you’re able to raise price on products sold that may have been acquired before costs really went up, which would enable some gross margin expansion? Just as we think about modeling the cadence of the sell-in versus sell-out, how should we think about that?

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

Yes, it’s a good point. We started to see the cost inflation really at the tail end of the third quarter, and pretty much all of the fourth quarter. And our merchants have done a fantastic job of negotiating timing and also done a fantastic job of making sure that we got retails raised in a way that kept us competitive in the marketplace, and the way that costs actually end up flowing through the system. You typically will have a little bit of margin accretion at least in the early innings as you raise retails before all the cost increases make their way through.

And to the extent that we see price increases come, there are times where we actually move a little bit early. So, those are things that can actually help you, at least in the near-term, get a little bit of margin accretion and get out ahead of what you’re seeing from an inflation standpoint. That’s no different than what we’ve done in the past.

Elizabeth SuzukiBank of America Merrill Lynch — Analyst

Yes. Great. And just, sorry, one more follow-up just on cost. Just as you think about rising wages, what’s your average entry level minimum wage for — at AutoZone and what are your expectations for how that could trend going into next year?

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Yes, we really haven’t disclosed our average entry level wage. But what I will tell you is, for the last four years I’ve been talking about, we’ve been operating in the toughest labor in market I have ever seen, and our wage inflation has been significant. It has basically doubled wage inflation during this period of time. It is very, very difficult to get new AutoZoners to join the company. I hear that from all of our retail peers.

Fortunately, in the last five weeks or so, things have changed a little bit. I don’t know if that’s directly related to the change in enhanced on employment or not, but we have seen a meaningful improvement in the ability to hire people in both the distribution centers and the stores over time. But we are dealing with the most significant inflation in the labor market that I’ve ever seen and really don’t anticipate that slowing down materially until the labor market frees up some.

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

Yes, it’s a macro issue. And certainly we’re not immune to the market dynamics there. What I’ll say is that we’ve done a very good job of sort of managing it. Our operations teams both on the stores and the supply chain side are working really hard and managed turnover in this environment. We’ve been competitive in the marketplace. And then when it’s all said and done, we do have pricing power that underpins our capability to price the deal with the influx of — the impacts of inflation, whether it’s product costs or transportation costs or what we’re seeing in terms of labor. And that’s one of the things about this industry, the discipline in this industry that gives us a lot of confidence.

Elizabeth SuzukiBank of America Merrill Lynch — Analyst

Great. Thanks very much.

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Thank you. Okay, before we conclude the call, I want to take a moment to reiterate, we believe our industry is strong and our business model is solid. We’ll take nothing for granted as we understand our customers have alternatives to shopping with us. We’ll continue to focus on the basics as we strive to optimize shareholder value in FY ’22 and beyond. We thank you for participating in today’s call. Have a great fall.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

Duration: 63 minutes

Call participants:

Brian CampbellVice President, Treasurer, Investor Relations and Tax

William C. RhodesChairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Customer Satisfaction

Jamere JacksonChief Financial Officer, Executive Vice President-Finance and Store Development, Customer Satisfac

Bret JordanJefferies Securities — Analyst

Greg MelichEvercore ISI — Analyst

Chris HorversJPMorgan — Analyst

Michael LasserUBS — Analyst

Simeon GutmanMorgan Stanley — Analyst

Elizabeth SuzukiBank of America Merrill Lynch — Analyst

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