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By Lisa Baertlein
Jan 22 (Reuters) - Starbucks Corp on Thursday said traffic to its Americas-region stores perked up during the holiday quarter, easing investor jitters about slower growth and boosting shares over 4 percent in after-hours trading.
The world’s biggest coffee chain also announced that director Kevin Johnson would become Starbucks president and chief operating officer, effective March 1, replacing long-time executive Troy Alstead, who said he is taking an extended sabbatical to spend time with his family.
Starbucks shares jumped $3.36, or 4.1 percent, to $86.10 in extended trade.
Sales at Starbucks cafes open at least 13 months were up 5 percent for the U.S.-dominated Americas region in the first quarter that ended Dec. 28.
Traffic was up 2 percent, an acceleration from the 1 percent gain posted in the previous quarter. Starbucks’ Americas region contributes the majority of company revenue.
Customer visits to Starbucks’ Americas-region cafes had cooled for five straight quarters, causing some investors and analysts to worry that the company’s increased focus on food had slowed service.
Starbucks Chief Financial Officer Scott Maw said traffic increased steadily over the quarter, which is Starbucks’ most important for sales. Starbucks had 9 million more customer transactions in the United States during the quarter, versus the year earlier. Among other things, executives attributed the rise to the popularity of Starbucks new Chestnut Praline Latte, Teavana teas and the addition of new loyalty card members.
Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz told Reuters that Johnson’s appointment was about adding depth to the company’s management bench, not succession.
“I’ve never been more committed,” he said. “I‘m all in.”
Schultz said he had been speaking with Johnson, who had offered the company particularly helpful advice on its digital and mobile efforts, about taking a job with Starbucks for about a year. He called the timing of Alstead’s request for a sabbatical in December “coincidental.”
While Johnson’s new role is “not a temporary assignment,” Schultz said he would be “wide open” to Alstead’s return.
Starbucks also posted quarterly net income of $983.1 million, or $1.30 per share, up from $540.7 million, or 71 cents per share, in the year-earlier quarter.
Excluding items related to its Starbucks Japan acquisition, Starbucks earned 80 cents per share in the latest quarter.
Starbucks forecast fiscal 2015 revenue growth of 16 percent to 18 percent and full-year earnings, excluding items, of $3.09 to $3.13 per share. (Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles, editing by G Crosse)