Market data powered by FactSet and Web Financial Group. It seems like a little bit to me of a high bar, just given how much the world has changed, e-com being margin dilutive and so forth. And clearly, the pandemic has had some dynamics that have caused us to kind of second-guess some things, reinforce other things. I want to share some progress in three key areas: innovation, marketing and e-commerce.
Sprouts Farmers Market (NASDAQ:SFM) is scheduled to announce Q3 earnings results on Wednesday, October 28th, after market close. We're still in our journey to open new stores at a minimum of 10% annual unit growth rate. We continue to maintain extra levels of cleaning discipline. Jack Sinclair, Chief Executive Officer; and Denise Paulonis, Chief Financial Officer, are with me today.
I guess within like the 4Q guide, can you talk a little bit about your expectations for gross margin improvement as you lap some of those promotional changes from a year ago and then kind of the headwinds related to COVID and some of those e-commerce costs continuing? When autocomplete results are available use up and down arrows to review and enter to select. Visit the Earnings Calendar to see dates for upcoming earnings announcements. How do we target our customers and how do we play our own game.
We think the consolidation of the trip as Denise said, probably hasn't helped us with regard to the full shop relative to other people within that. Customers can even search and filter Sprout's product catalog by key attributes such as new, on sale and organic to find and discover products more easily. Thanks, Jack.
We are very set on the strategy that we've outlined, which is targeting specific customers, targeting a more narrow customer base than trying to appeal to all people at all times. Yes, yes, you have some loyalty, but it's email addresses. I understand the strategy.
Turning to marketing. In the third quarter, net sales grew 1.5% to $1.6 billion, fueled by sales from new stores and comparable store sales, which are up 4.2% compared to the same period last year. The fact that we've got fairly significant new store growth that are performing well, fairly comfortable with the data that we're seeing from the customer base that we are targeting. Their quantities are too small for many of the large chains. I think our NPS scores would suggest that we're better than most of that, if not even stronger, I could maybe even be stronger about how positive our target customers feel about the interface that they get in our stores, whether it be the guy behind the seafood counter, whether it be the executive people we've got in our vitamin category who are giving advice to people in terms of what they should be doing and how they should be thinking about things. The opportunity lies with us to properly communicate and grow our target customers and their baskets over time. Founded in 1993 by brothers Tom and David Gardner, The Motley Fool helps millions of people attain financial freedom through our website, podcasts, books, newspaper column, radio show, and premium investing services.
But first of all, nobody is jumping on the bandwagon to the point that they don't want to do anything else, which means they're limited in how they can do that, and the pie is much, much bigger. With regard to us, we talked about this long before the pandemic. And the key thing for us going forward is we're really clear about the customers that we're targeting, and we're really clear about how we want to approach those customers. Turning to our strategy. The addition of our two new DCs in Colorado and Florida in 2021, will allow us to be closer to our stores, which will create a fresher presentation to our customers. The animal husbandry that's involved in it. Our remarks today include references to non-GAAP measures. And the grocery team have been going through category by category.
All things that are going to have our strategy continue to come to life, while we're leveraging the momentum that we gained from 2020 and our margin structure. Now as Jack said, I think what we did this year is prove that we can get into that range. And I think we also see the runway of other improvements that we're going to be able to continue to make that will make it a great shopping experience for our customer, but also continue to fuel the profitability that we're able to drive. Analysts expect Sprouts Farmers Market to post earnings of $0.35 per share for the quarter. It is now my pleasure to introduce Vice President, Investor Relations and Treasury, Susannah Livingston. "As we started 2020, we were focused on executing on our five-year strategy of creating a highly profitable, differentiated, speciality grocer with a long growth runway. Now let me hand it off to Denise to speak to the financials. Some of these exciting new products include our seasonal in and out hatch chile items like our grain-free paleo and vegan friendly chip, Sprouts private label vegan Matcha Latte Protein Powder and remedy organic cold brew coffee with MCT oil. You'll remember that this quarter, we are lapping the first phase of our promotional efficiency efforts that drove merchandise margin improvements starting in the fourth quarter of 2019.
The category mix that we have is a little bit different. The campaign, which includes our first mainstream commercial on-farm fresh goodness, drives home our farmers' market experience by highlighting produce, the heart of our store and inspires health enthusiasts and experience seekers to engage with our brand. And then just kind of switching gears a little bit. Our e-commerce business grew 337%, outpacing most e-commerce growth rates in the industry. So customers can order directly from Sprouts either through our website or the Sprouts app on their phone. Good afternoon.
In fact, over the last months, as we go back to our routes, we have demonstrated that we can even get back to Sprouts' original IPO profit margins. Want to see which stocks are moving?
And we're going to be talking about it long after the pandemic. It's one of the runways ahead of us that's going to get its real differentiation. Learn more. Thanks, Jack, and good afternoon, everyone. And I guess I'm also curious, what gives you confidence that you're not cutting into the bone-in of core customers right now, the ones you really want to keep. We had more than 1.4 billion impressions of our master brand since its launch and over two billion overall media impressions, as we extend our reach with our target customer groups, the health enthusiast and the experience seeker. Thank you. So from the point of view of the size of the price, it's pretty big. And I think we think there's a great partnership between what we can do on our own website, keep people in our own ecosystem who just want to experience Sprouts. Or it's just a convenience play as you get more and more stores rolled out? And if we can get the communication of the brand to those customers and then let the customer choose how to interact with the brand.
You guys think you're performing in line with the market and the categories you compete in?
SG&A expense was $475 million or 30.1% of sales, deleveraging 200 basis points compared to the same period last year. And then how do you think -- with e-commerce at that level and now moving potentially more of that business on to your own website, how do you think that change will impact your ability to manage the margin headwind there? You are pleased -- we are pleased you have taken the time to join Sprouts on our third quarter 2020 earnings call. Our interest expense was $3 million, and our effective tax rate was 20%. Finally, I want to highlight the importance of our produce business. This is Spencer Hanus on for Greg. We remain focused on serving our customers no matter how they choose to interact with us for the healthy groceries their families need. We know that we have levers to pull. Whether that's the exact number that we're going to stick with over the long term, and it's not necessarily setting a new target. So we've evolved a few things. Things have stayed the same. And as I said, I'm going to build some better communication as to what that means inside our store.
And by that, are you planning to expand or pull back on any of your departments within stores relative to what you may have planned earlier this year. We estimate approximately 250 basis points were enabled by COVID. Learn more. And so if you could help us give a little clarity on either it's kind of a service offering that helps pull that targeted customer? I think the reality, we're playing our own game in the middle of this pandemic, and it's something that we outlined well before the COVID dynamics that have created a little bit of confusion. We're disproportionately performing better in our new stores, where that target customer count on the new target customer basis is higher than where we are otherwise. As we started 2020, we were focused on executing on our five-year strategy of creating a highly profitable, differentiated specialty grocer with a long growth runway.
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