The Wal-Mart juggernaut has a few holes to plug as it heads into what’s expected to be another tough year marked by depressed earnings and flat sales.
Wal-Mart’s business in the U.S. and most other countries where it operates is sound. But the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer is striving to accelerate e-commerce sales, where it is playing catch up to Amazon.com; improve its Sam’s Club warehouse chain, where better merchandising is needed, and has been hitting headwinds in economically troubled Brazil and China, as well as in the U.K.
The company is also trying to sell its Suburbia 11-unit apparel chain in Mexico and some other assets, to simplify the portfolio and focus on core businesses.
Wage increases, charges associated with store closures, higher taxes and currency fluctuations are also taking a toll. The warm holiday season, which reduced demand for winter apparel and accessories, and some deflation in food prices also hurt the company last quarter, though low gas prices should offset some of the declines.
On Thursday, the retailer forecast a decline in earnings per share for fiscal 2017 to between $4 and $4.30, down from the $4.59 in adjusted EPS reported for last year. The company also said that sales growth in fiscal 2017 will be “relatively flat,” although in constant currency terms it expects sales to increase by 3 to 4 percent a year over the next three years.
The outlook disturbed investors, who sent shares down more than 4 percent in the morning but by late afternoon the stock was down only 3.2 percent to $63.97.
“We know we have a lot of work to do and there are areas of the business that are not where they need to be,” said Wal-Mart Stores Inc. president and chief executive officer Doug McMillon, during a call after the company released its fourth-quarter and year-end results.
Net earnings for the year declined 10.2 percent to $14.7 billion, or $4.57 a diluted share, from $16.4 billion, or $5.05 a share, a year earlier.
Net revenues for the year fell 0.7 percent to $482.1 billion last year from $485.7 billion in the prior fiscal year. On a constant currency basis, revenues gained 2.8 percent to $499.4 billion.
Fourth-quarter earnings fell 7.9 percent to $4.6 billion or $1.43 a diluted share, from $5 billion, or $1.53, a year earlier. Sales declined 1.4 percent to $129.7 billion from $131.6 billion the year before.
“In October, we guided that on a constant currency basis, net sales would grow 3 to 4 percent annually over the next three years. Excluding the impact of recently announced store closures [totaling 269 doors] and the continued impact of the strength of the U.S. dollar, our fiscal 2017 sales growth would have remained in that same range. However, including store closures and the impact of the strengthening U.S. dollar, we now expect sales growth to be relatively flat in fiscal 2017,” said Brett Biggs, chief financial officer, during the call.
While noting improvements are necessary, McMillon said the company was “pleased with the fundamental trends that are allowing us to improve our stores, add critical capabilities and deepen our digital relationships with customers.”
The ceo called 2015 a year of “investment, operational improvement and change” and cited an “underlying strength in our Wal-Mart U.S. business that wasn’t there a year ago.”
On other fronts, McMillon cited strides in technology and e-commerce, including developing a platform than can be scaled across the business; creating new fulfillment centers that get deliveries out faster, and growth in customers using Wal-Mart’s in-store pickup of online orders service.
Wal-Mart has recently begun enabling shoppers to order groceries online and pick them up in the parking lots of Wal-Marts. Currently, 150 locations in more than 20 markets offer the service.
McMillon put the 269 store closings in perspective by saying they represented less than 1 percent of Wal-Mart’s global revenues and square footage. “More than half of the affected workers in the U.S. were reassigned,” he said.
He said Wal-Mart U.S. is on “firm ground,” the Canadian and Mexican businesses are good, while in China and Brazil there are “increasingly challenging economic environments.” The U.K. “remains extremely competitive.”
Sam’s Club fell below expectations last quarter, with food under-performing outside of holiday periods. But McMillon said he was pleased with efforts to improve the merchandising and drive new memberships.