Analyzing Revenue and Sales on Your Income Statement

Two coworkers working through revenue
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The first line on any income statement or profit and loss statement is an entry called total revenue or total sales. This figure is the amount of money a business brought in during the time period covered by the income statement. It has nothing to do with profit. If you owned a pizza parlor and sold 10 pizzas for $10 each, you would record $100 of revenue regardless of your profit or loss. If you owned a furniture store and sold a bedroom set for $25,000, you would record $25,000 regardless of your profit or loss. If you owned a hamburger joint and sold 100 cheeseburgers for $3.99 each, you'd record $399 in revenue regardless of your profit or loss.

The total revenue figure is important because a business must bring in money to turn a profit. If a company has less revenue, all else being equal, it's going to make less money. For start-up companies that have yet to turn a profit, revenue can sometimes serve as a gauge of potential profitability in the future.

Starbucks as an Example of Total Revenue

Many companies break revenue or sales up into categories to clarify how much was generated by each division. Clearly defined and separate revenue sources can make analyzing an income statement much easier. It allows for more accurate predictions of future growth. Below you'll find a copy of the Starbucks 2001 income statement to view as an example, in Table STAR-1. If you can, also check out the total sales figures for Starbucks in its 2015 annual report or Form 10-K filing. In this example, revenue grew to $15,197,300,000 over that span. In March of 2016, this would have grown into more than $1,071,000 on a total return basis. That doesn't even assume you reinvested your dividends. For Starbucks, exponentially growing sales also meant exponentially growing profits—something that isn't necessarily true at all firms—and the owners were richly rewarded for their patience, enjoying a CAGR about which most people could only dream.

As you see in the original, archived 2001 chart at the bottom of this page, sales at Starbucks came primarily from two sources: retail and specialty. In the annual report, management explains the difference between the two several pages before the income statement. "Retail" revenues refer to sales made at company-owned Starbucks stores across the world. Every time you walk in and order your favorite coffee, you are adding $3 to $5 in revenue to the company's books. "Specialty" operations, on the other hand, consists of money the company brings in by sales to "wholesale accounts and licensees, royalty, and license fee income and sales through its direct-to-consumer business." In other words, the specialty division includes money the business receives from coffee sales made directly to customers through its website or catalog, along with licensing fees generated by companies such as Barnes and Noble, which pay for the right to operate Starbucks locations in their bookstores.

From the perspective of an owner, there is often a mistaken belief that growing sales are always a good thing. While this is generally true, there can be exceptions. In an industry such as property and casualty insurance, growth is almost always achieved by lowering policy costs, which can hit profits hard if management isn't careful, though it may not show up for several years as there is a delay between when the policy is priced and when the losses are incurred. Likewise, if growth is financed by diluting existing stockholders, taking on excessive amounts of debt, or engaging in riskier activities, it can result in a partial or total wipe-out down the line. History is full of companies that are cautionary tales, from former blue-chip banks and thrifts such as Wachovia and Washington Mutual, insurance conglomerates such as AIG, and investment banks such as Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. Growth in sales or revenue should not be the goal by itself. Growth in profitable sales and revenue, adjusted for risk, and in a way that rewards the existing owners, is the objective. As you learn more about the income statement, this will make more sense. The short version is that you should only want a business to generate more sales if it is going to benefit you in some capacity over the long-run. After all, it's your hard-earned money that is at risk in the enterprise.

Depending upon the business and its economics, the revenue or sales figure on the income statement may be reduced by what is known as a "reserve for allowance of returns." What that means is a business that knows, traditionally, 1 percent of its sales end up being returned by customers might go ahead and include that 1 percent reduction in the revenue figure as that is what experience shows is likely to happen. 

Table STAR-1 (Archived Illustration From Original Investing LessonSee Text for Explanation)

For nostalgia's sake, let's use the archived sales/revenue figures from almost two decades ago. You can easily replace these with figures from Starbuck's current 10-K filing or annual report. In fact, please try as it will allow you to practice finding and researching financial disclosures.

Archived Starbucks CoffeeConsolidated Statement of Earnings - ExcerptPage 29, 2001 Annual ReportIn thousands
Fiscal year ended Sept 30, 2001 Oct 1, 2000
Net Revenues
Retail $2,229,594 $1,823,607
Specialty $419,386 $354,007
Total net revenues $2,648,980 $2,177,614