By  on June 5, 2006

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Wal-Mart Stores Inc., amid the usual hoopla of its annual shareholders meeting here on Friday, sounded the theme of change.

Although president and chief executive officer H. Lee Scott Jr. has characterized the world’s largest retailer as being in transition, executives made clear that there is no wavering from the mission to grow. About 600 stores will be added this year, 200 outside the U.S.

Chief financial officer Tom Schoewe said that Wal-Mart, which had $312.4 billion in sales last year, will keep expanding the number of stores by 8 percent a year.

Unveiling a new slogan, “Wal-Mart Out in Front,’’ Scott recalled that company founder Sam Walton said, “You can’t just keep doing what works one time. Everything is changing and we have to stay in front of change to succeed.”

Executives said Wal-Mart would intensify test programs started last year. They include:

  • More updated and exclusive merchandise, along with targeted market research to identify and address specific customer segments. Recent success stories are in the urban and contemporary areas, with the launches of the Metro 7 contemporary women’s brand, Exsto urban men’s wear, and the George ME by Mark Eisen line. Future target segments include Hispanics, Baby Boomers and affluent suburban customers.

  • Advertising in all media will take a more contemporary direction, in both content and venue. There will be more events, such as the recent pop-up store in South Beach. In addition, there will be ads “in places I never thought we would have,” Scott said, without elaborating.

  • Scott said the company would eye new markets, including India with its growing middle class.
Both Scott and chairman Rob Walton, the son of the founder, invoked the elder Walton’s name as they reiterated the theme. Scott invoked Wal-Mart’s rapid response in providing relief supplies after Hurricane Katrina for helping to inspire change.

“How can we use our unique strength to be that company all the time?’’ he said.

Walton, conceding that the magnitude and pace of change would have surprised his father, said, “Nobody loved change more than Sam Walton.’’They spoke a day after Wal-Mart reported a 2.3 percent rise in May same-store sales and amid worries about the impact of higher gas prices on core customers. Wal-Mart is seeking to broaden its appeal to compete with rival Target Stores, which reported a 5.7 percent rise in May same-store sales. The company, which has come under fire on issues ranging from employee wages and health benefits to its impact on the environment, wants to lure shoppers willing to spend on trendier fashions and plasma televisions.

Scott also stressed continuing operational and efficiency improvements, especially those that have resulted in inventory reduction, fuel efficiency and lower costs.

About 20,000 shareholders, store associates and executives from Wal-Mart’s domestic and international operations attended the extravaganza at the Bud Walton Arena of the University of Arkansas., which included performances by Beyoncé Knowles and “American Idol’’ winner Taylor Hicks. There were also musical numbers featuring performers singing Broadway-style tunes such as “The Day That I Met Sam’’ and dancing with grocery carts.

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