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Wal-Mart Defection Drains Heft From Comps

Mass retailer Wal-Mart will now only give quarterly comp updates and forecasts.

Monthly comps might never be the same again.

The often revealing monthly ritual of reporting comparable-store sales results seemed set to lose a great deal of its influence after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said last week it would forgo the practice.

Wal-Mart will now only give quarterly comp updates and forecasts.

The announcement by the world’s largest retailer highlights the current conflict between the push for corporate transparency on one hand and the resistance to focus on short-term results on the other.

“This decision aligns investors with the long-term view we take to build shareholder value,” said Tom Schoewe, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Wal-Mart, last week. “We feel this also will reduce the intra-period volatility related to events such as calendar shifts.”

With Easter occurring in April this year rather than March, as it did in 2008, last month’s results generally benefited, albeit at the expense of those in March. Similar calendar shifts in the past have distorted monthly comparisons.

The investment community tends to be skeptical whenever companies try to pull any type of veil over their operations, especially when times are tough.

But Joseph Feldman, managing director and analyst at Telsey Advisory Group, said the discount giant is at the top of its game.

“I don’t take it as too negative,” said Feldman, who noted that it would make his job a lot harder.

“It’s frustrating from an analyst’s point of view,” he said. “The truth is, they generally hit the numbers that they offer.”

Wal-Mart went out on a high note, with its total U.S. comps up 5 percent in April, excluding fuel sales. The company’s overall sales for the month rose 2.4 percent to $29.85 billion.

“You may see others try to follow suit,” said Feldman. “This could be a bellwether, but I just wonder if the timing is now [for others to stop reporting], given the challenging operating environment.”

Citing the skewing of results caused by calendar shifts and promotional schedules, Macy’s Inc. in February 2008 said it would stop issuing monthly comps. But the company reinstated its monthly reports, at least temporarily, last November, as frozen credit markets and bank failures pushed stocks into a free fall and investors were quick to use any lack of visibility as a reason to sell.

Macy’s is keeping to its monthly regimen for now, but still thinks that quarterly reports are the most effective way of keeping shareholders informed.

“The practice of reporting sales monthly unfortunately has encouraged a short-term orientation that distracts retailers such as Macy’s as we implement strategies to create sustaining shareholder value,” said a spokesman for the firm last week. “Monthly reporting in times of calendar shifts has led to misunderstanding and misinterpretation of sales results. While Macy’s Inc. intends to continue to report sales monthly…we will continue to review our practices in the future.”

Other retailers, especially in the specialty store sector, appear to have abandoned the practice for good. Among the companies to cease reporting on a monthly basis in the past two years are AnnTaylor Stores Corp., Bebe Stores Inc., Caché Inc., Chico’s FAS Inc., Christopher & Banks Inc., The Dress Barn Inc., New York & Co. Inc. and Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. Others have stopped reporting because of acquisitions or bankruptcies. Two years ago, WWD included results from 47 retailers and divisions of retail firms in its report on April 2007 sales; by last month, that number had dropped to 34.