May 31, 2010
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Wal-Mart holders seek answers on keeping customers

May 31, 2010

By Brad Dorfman

CHICAGO, May 28 (Reuters) - As Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) employees chant the corporate cheer at the company's annual meeting this year, Wall Street is less enthusiastic about the retailer's U.S. sales trailing a fitful economic recovery.


The shares of the world's largest retailer are down about 1 percent since the annual pep rally for thousands of workers that doubles as Wal-Mart's annual shareholder meeting was held a year ago, while the Standard & Poor's 500 .SPX has rallied more than 16 percent over the same period.

Short of looking for a return to the recession that helped spur Wal-Mart's sales and stock in 2008, investors want to know how Chief Executive Mike Duke plans to boost U.S. sales while the company's core customer continues to be pressured by high unemployment and other shoppers are trading up to competitors.

"I'd sure like to hear that they have a better idea than I do of how they are going to keep the customers," said Janna Sampson, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments, which holds 488,000 Wal-Mart shares.

"I know they continued to focus on price, but I'm not sure if the economy turns up that's the be all and end all," she said.

Wal-Mart's sales at U.S. discount stores open at least a year have been down for the past four quarters, and the company said that measure could be down 2 percent to up 1 percent in the current quarter, excluding fuel.

Wal-Mart has announced thousands of price "rollbacks" to attract a customers that remain on very tight budgets. It has aggressively cut costs to help fund the rollbacks and increase earnings. Overseas sales have also helped lift results.

"If they can demonstrate that they can continue to (manage costs) even during a soft sales environment, that should be enough reassurance to investors that they will continue to manage the business well and even grow earnings," Edward Jones analyst Matt Arnold said.


The U.S. economy's performance has been mixed in recent months. On Friday 28 May, the Commerce Department said consumer spending was flat in April. But the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan index of consumer confidence edged up to 73.6 this month from 72.2 in April.

So while low prices resonate with some customers, those who feel more secure in their jobs have started to shift to rival Target Corp (TGT.N) and some department stores to buy more discretionary items like clothing and home furnishings.

"They are doing everything they can to hold on to at least some of the trade-down customer they gained during the recession, but they are seeing at least some of those customers migrate to other stores," Arnold said.

Wal-Mart has done well in attracting customers with expanded fresh foods and low-priced prescription medicines.

But even on the grocery side, the company has stumbled. In March, the retailer said that it had put about 300 items back on its shelves that were lopped of as part of the company's Project Impact U.S. store remodeling program.

Though the items were slower sellers, shoppers expected them to be on the shelves, and Wal-Mart missed out on customers' entire shopping trips if they were not stocked.

Still, last week, the company said that stores that have been remodeled were showing sales improvements in electronics, fresh food, seasonal products and other areas.

Wal-Mart also concedes that its U.S. apparel business is a "work in progress," in the word's of Vice Chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright.

While the core customer at Wal-Mart is not necessarily looking to be on the cutting edge of fashion trends, the customer "wants to be current and wants to look good," said Bryan Eshelman, managing director in the global retail practice of consulting firm AlixPartners.

"Wal-Mart has the wonderful advantage of frequency of visit," he said. "It makes sense they have some items in apparel that surprise and wow the customer."

Wal-Mart has been more successful in overhauling its consumer electronics business in recent years and has taken the No. 2 spot in the country.

Earlier this month, the company said it was bringing in new products like televisions that can connect wirelessly to Internet movie streaming services -- such as Netflix Inc (NFLX.O) and the Vudu service Wal-Mart just bought -- and carry un-Walmart price tags of up to $2,000.

Wal-Mart shares were down 15 cents at $50.55 on Friday (28 May) afternoon on the New York Stock Exchange. (Reporting by Brad Dorfman; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Gerald E. McCormick)

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