Walmart.com

“We’re going to win in e-commerce.”

That was the bold statement from Doug McMillon, president and chief executive officer of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., at the retailer’s annual meeting for the investment community on Tuesday as the company steps up its push to take on Amazon on more and more fronts.

The ceo left no doubt about the company’s priorities. “Super Centers are largely built-out,” he said. “We have an opportunity with Neighborhood Markets, but the choice we’re making now is to put our assets and investments in e-commerce. We’re going to win in e-commerce. When you look more broadly than the U.S., the Super Center buildout in Canada and other markets such as Latin and Central America aren’t as developed.”

Wal-Mart in 2016 opened 60 Super Centers, while fewer than 15 are planned for 2018, along with just 10 Neighborhood Markets. The company plans to remodel 500 units next year and unveil 1,000 new online grocery locations.

“We have a plan that plays to our unique strengths,” McMillon said. “We’re acting faster as a company and being disciplined as we go. We’re committed to cost reductions. We can do so without harming momentum on the top line. We have strong cash flow.”

McMillon said the company fortified its foundation with investments in people and stores.”We see evidence of that. We’re improving the store experience, lowering prices and reducing excess inventory,” he said.

“Our future looks more digital,” McMillon said. “We have to work with decisiveness and speed. We’re using technology to serve our customers.”

Wal-Mart has acquired Bonobos, Hayneedle, Modcloth, Moosejaw and Shoes.com. The e-commerce sites will provide category expertise and unique products and expanded assortments, McMillon said, adding, “They’re a way to reach new customers.

“Wal-Mart has been steadily expanding our merchandise assortment online,” McMillon said. “This time last year, we had just reached 15 million items available on walmart.com and today that number is 67 million items and rising.”

Marc Lore, president and ceo of Wal-Mart U.S. e-commerce, said sales rose 62 percent in the first half, compared to 12 percent last year. “We see 40 percent growth off a base of $11.5 billion,” he added. “We’re looking for other long tail categories as opportunities for Jet.com and walmart.com. We’re going to elevate the walmart.com brand to attract more premium brands. We’re redesigning the web site for Q1, working on partnerships for more premium assortments and creating fashion and home browsing experiences.”

Jet.com is being positioned to high-income Millennial customers. “We’ve started to attract more premium brands,” Lore said. “That will help build a bridge to walmart.com.” Delivery can make or break a customer relationship. “We’re using Uber, Deliv and even our own associates,” Lore said. “We also bought Parcel, which is focused in urban areas. Two days ago, we announced Mobile Express Returns, which allows consumers to return a product in less than a minute.”

Store No. 8 is incubating new technology with the potential to shape the future of retail. Lore said the incubator is looking at interactive, immersive and on-demand, autonomous vehicles, and augmented reality, artificial intelligence and virtual reality. It’s also working to redefine the brick-and-mortar experience for the future.

Ray Young, a retail analyst at Gordon Haskett, raised Wal-Mart’s price target to $95 following the meeting. “Gone are the days of  [opening] 300-plus Super Centers per year,” he said. “Instead, the team is laser-focused on domestic operations, including expanding digital operations. The brand perception of Wal-Mart, aided by last year’s Jet acquisition along with multiple [digitally native acquisitions], has improved dramatically, which could have a significant impact on its ability to draw in more Millennial shoppers.”

Greg Foran, president and ceo of Wal-Mart U.S., said, “We’re fixing inventory. We continue to provide convenience and remove friction from the shopping experience by blending online and in-store. We worked on the flow of products from distribution centers to the stores. We gave associates necessary technology. We released 12 new or revised apps. We’re more productive, and we’ve increased volume in stores. Apps like an inventory management tool incentivize associates to drive sales.”

Proof of the approach, Foran said, is a 3.1 percent increase in net sales in the first half, and 1.6 percent comp-store sales increase on strong traffic.

The retail giant reiterated its fiscal year 2018 earnings per share guidance of $4.18 to $4.28. The retailer also unveiled a new $20 billion share repurchase program to replace its existing authorization and expects to utilize the new authorization over two years.

Fiscal 2019 guidance includes consolidated net sales, which are expected to grow at or above 3 percent, driven by comp-store sales and e-commerce growth, assuming currency exchange rates remain at current levels. The company projected a 40 percent increase at Wal-Mart U.S. e-commerce.

Capital expenditures are estimated to be about $11 billion for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

“One thing that will not change is our commitment to deliver value to our customer,” Foran said. “We’re investing several billion dollars in price. Our ability starts with buying for less and operating for less. We’ve accelerated the shopping process with more self checkouts, scan and go automation and robotics. We’re up-skilling talent to serve customers.”

Foran said 18,000 personal shoppers have been hired for online grocery.”These roles foster one-on-one relationships,” he said. “We are being great merchants through the currency of trust.”

Sam’s Club believes less is more and is focused on its redefined customer. “We’re narrowing our target member and taking more steps to become special to that member. We tried to serve a wide variety of incomes and too many types of small business members. We’ll be very clear on our target member. We really have one member: a busy family with a household income of $75,000 to $125,000. This is a big segment of our business and we’re evaluating merchandise offerings.”

Net sales at Sam’s Club were up 2.6 percent and traffic up 1.6 percent, in the first half. Member’s Mark, now an $11 billion brand, has seen its penetration grow from 17 percent two years ago to 23 percent today.

With Sam’s refocused on the fresh food business, comps have risen as high as 5 percent. E-commerce sales in the first half were up 25 percent. Year-to-date, Sam’s visits are up by seven million. “We have a merchant team,” said John Furner, Sam’s president and ceo. “We’re curating high-quality aspirational assortments that are on-trend. And we have ‘wow’ merchandise for holidays.”

Consumers all over the world want to receive their orders faster. Wal-Mart is experimenting with various forms of delivery in the U.S., and including paying associates to drop off orders after work, and automated pick-up towers, which will be installed in about 100 stores by the end of the year. The retailer is rewarding customers for behavior that saves Wal-Mart money, such as offering pick-up discounts.

David Cheesewright, president and ceo of Wal-Mart International, said a partnership with New Dada in 140 stores across China, leverages the the country’s largest local on-demand logistics and grocery e-commerce platform. “From the time you press the order button on the app, it’s in your home in one hour,” Cheesewright said.

“We had a really strong first half,” said Cheesewright of the international business. “Net sales were up 3.2 percent. We saw continued sales momentum from Walmex, which was very strong. Canada’s comps were ahead by 2 percent. The U.K. has been a tough market, but comps for the first half rose 1.8 percent, compared with negative 1.7 percent last year. We’re seeing good increases in traffic.”

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