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Wal-Mart Announces $15 Billion Buyback

Friday, 03 Jun 2011 10:42 AM

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. unveiled a $15 billion share repurchase program Friday as it sought to reassure shareholders at its annual meeting that the world's largest retailer is still growing.

The buyback will replace a previous $15 billion repurchase plan begun a year ago. The company bought back 244 million shares worth $12.9 billion under that program.

"This reflects the strong financial performance of your corporation," said Charles Holley, Wal-Mart's executive vice prsident and chief financial officer in an address to shareholders and associates packed in a University of Arkansa arena about 30 miles from its Bentonville headquarters.

While international sales are sizzling, the company is still trying to reverse a two-year sales slump at home, with no clear sign of when that will happen.

"We made a lot of progress over the last 11 months," said Bill Simon, president and CEO of Wal-Mart's U.S. business in address to shareholders. "We have the right plan."

He noted that two-thirds of the business has seen gains in a key measure of sales, most of which is coming from groceries.

But he cautioned, "You certainly can't predict the weather and the economy."

Wal-Mart's flagship business is hurting because it's still smarting from the mistakes it made on pricing and selection more than two years ago. The company has been racing to restock thousands of items it culled as part of its overzealous bid to clean up its stores two years ago. It's also gone back to its "Everyday Low Price" roots.

Wal-Mart is also battling increasing threats from competitors, particularly online rivals like Amazon.com and dollar chains, which have expanded their assortments and become more competitive on price.

Wal-Mart's low-income shoppers have also seen their financial problems shift. A year ago, they were worried about losing their jobs. Now, rising gas prices and other household costs are squeezing their budgets and making it tough to stretch their remaining dollars to the next payday.

Thursday's reports on May sales from major retailers, including rival Target Corp., provided more evidence that inflationary pressures are causing shoppers to pull back on discretionary items like clothing and home goods.

On Thursday, Simon told a media gathering that low-income shoppers are going through a "prolonged malaise." Such financial woes could stall Wal-Mart's campaign to turn its U.S. business around.

Wal-Mart's fears have deep repercussions, because it's a bellwether of consumer spending and accounts for nearly 10 percent of all nonautomotive retail dollars spent in the U.S.

Shares of Wal-Mart have tracked closer to its profits than its domestic sales this past year, and its robust international business, fueled by Mexico, China and Chile, has propped up revenue and profits. Wal-Mart shares are up almost 4 percent over the past 12 months. But they peaked in late January and have lost almost 7 percent since the company said it would not predict when U.S. revenue at stores open at least a year will begin growing, after setting a target date for last holiday season and missing it. That key revenue measure has declined for eight straight quarters.

The namesake Walmart stores account for 62 percent of the company's revenue, which reached $418 billion in its latest fiscal year ended Jan. 31; international makes up 26 percent.

Walmart's CEO of the company's international division attributes its success to focusing on what shoppers want.

"It's about finding the right item," said Doug McMillon.

McMillon noted that the company's fastest-growing division is working to expand its international Internet shopping business and is also growing through acquisitions.

The company is preparing to close on a $2.4 billion purchase of a majority interest in South African retailer Massmart, which operates in 14 countries.

The company's overall revenue is also getting a lift from its improving Sam's Club division, which has enjoyed five straight quarters of improving gains in stores open at least a year. Sam's Club has benefited from better quality merchandise, from higher grade sirloin steak to trendier fashion labels.

But, clearly, Wal-Mart's top priority is improving is U.S. namesake business. CEO Mike Duke, who took the helm in February 2009 when the retailer's strong performance made it the outlier during the Great Recession, is expected to emphasize how the company is recreating a one-stop shopping destination at its supercenters.

To address the increasing threat of dollar stores, Wal-Mart is also opening its first of up to 20 Walmart Express stores planned for this year. These stores are about the size of a typical drugstore.

Many analysts are eager for Wal-Mart to ramp up the expansion of these small stores. Rivals like Dollar General and others have been blanketing areas around the country with their own stores.

Simon told shareholders he's confident about Wal-Mart's comeback.

"You better get ready, because we're coming," he added.

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Wal-Mart Stores Inc. unveiled a $15 billion share repurchase program Friday as it sought to reassure shareholders at its annual meeting that the world's largest retailer is still growing.The buyback will replace a previous $15 billion repurchase plan begun a year ago. The...
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2011-42-03
Friday, 03 Jun 2011 10:42 AM
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