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Despite Tough Quarter, Stores Remain Upbeat

Wal-Mart’s flat profits stood in direct contrast to the other stores reporting results Thursday, all of which saw profits declines.

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Urban Outfitters

Urban Outfitters

Photo By Courtesy Photo

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. continues to leave everyone else in its wake.

Even as the retailer reported flat first-quarter net income, the results positioned it as this earnings season’s leader in profit performance, at least so far, as well as in price and volume.

Wal-Mart’s flat profits stood in direct contrast to the other stores reporting results Thursday, all of which saw profits declines. Nordstrom Inc., Urban Outfitters Inc. and Kohl’s Corp. saw profits fall 31.9 percent, 27.6 percent and 10.5 percent, respectively, but all three finished above consensus estimates.

Amid the gloom was a glimmer of optimism, however: Both Nordstrom and Kohl’s raised earnings guidance, an indication that stores might be reconsidering the highly cautious plans with which they emerged from the brutal holiday 2008 season.

And the better-than-expected results helped lift the S&P Retail Index 2.3 percent on Thursday morning, but profit-taking and another disappointing unemployment report pulled the index back down to near its starting point late in the day, finishing up 0.3 percent at 315.17. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, of which Wal-Mart is a component stock, was up 0.6 percent for the day, to 8,331.32, while the S&P 500 advanced 1 percent to 893.07.

Macy’s Inc. kicked off the earnings season Wednesday by reporting a higher quarterly loss, and J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Abercrombie & Fitch Co. are due to report their first-quarter results today. Analysts expect Penney’s to report a smaller profit and A&F to report a loss against a year-ago profit.

On Thursday, the heads of Wal-Mart’s U.S., international and Sam’s Club divisions sounded a cautionary refrain for the second quarter, when the retailer faces tough comparisons with last year. Wal-Mart will be fighting headwinds of last year’s government stimulus checks as well as the impact of currency fluctuation that could continue through the third quarter.

Net income for the quarter ended April 30 was flat at $3.02 billion, or 77 cents a diluted share, in-line with analysts’ estimates and at the high end of the company’s 5 cent range. Net sales for the quarter were $93.4 billion, a decrease of 0.6 percent from $94 billion in the 2009 period. Charles Holley, treasurer, said sales would have increased 4.5 percent to about $98.3 billion without a $4.8 billion reduction because of currency.

Mike Duke, president and chief executive officer, cited the company’s 3.7 percent increase in U.S. comparable-store sales, excluding fuel. “I’m pleased that this comp surpassed our own expectations,” he said.

Among Wal-Mart’s initiatives in the current quarter are a series of in-store commercials called “American Summer,” incorporating idyllic summer scenes and products available at Wal-Mart and on display in 2,650 units. Cash-strapped shoppers also will have access to new dollar aisles, where everything in stock costs $1, a move clearly aimed at the dollar-store sector that has been booming in the downturn.

Eduardo Castro-Wright, vice chairman of Wal-Mart, reported inventory was down 3.2 percent, and net interest expense down 5.8 percent, from a year ago. He also noted that, with sales at new and remodeled stores exceeding expectations and despite difficult year-ago comparisons, comps for the current second quarter are expected to land between flat and up 3 percent.

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