Friday, May 20, 2016

WAL-MART HAS GOOD QUARTER

Wal-Mart Joins Amazon in Squeezing Retail Rivals

Wal-Mart’s strong quarter may represent less of a bellwether for other retailers than a tolling bell


Wal-Mart’s fiscal first-quarter sales rose 0.9% from the year-earlier  period. ENLARGE
Wal-Mart’s fiscal first-quarter sales rose 0.9% from the year-earlier period. Photo: Nick Ut/AP Photo
To all the recent problems besetting retailers, add an old one: Wal-Mart WMT 0.98 % Stores.
The retailing giant on Thursday said its overall sales in its fiscal first quarter ended April rose 0.9% from a year ago to $115.9 billion—well above the $113.2 billion analysts anticipated. Earnings per share, at 98 cents, were a dime better than estimates.
After a string of disappointing results from retailers including Target, TGT 2.24 % J.C. Penney JCP 0.66 % and Macy’s, M 0.96 % the Wal-Mart numbers were a shot in the arm. Its stock climbed, with other retailers’ shares showing sympathy gains.
But Wal-Mart’s first-quarter success may not reflect a better retailing environment than investors have lately been reckoning on. Rather it could signal a renewed willingness on Wal-Mart’s part to take back market share, even if it comes at the expense of slimmer profit margins.
The company has been paying workers more, raising its minimum hourly wage to $10 in February. It has also been investing in e-commerce and sprucing up its stores.
Those moves led to a hefty 6.3% increase in selling, general and administrative expenses in the first quarter from a year earlier. As a result, earnings before interest and taxes as a share of sales fell to 4.6% from 4.9%. That is the slimmest operating margin the company has registered in over a decade.
The payoff from those investments are better experiences for customers, a more robust online presence and—as the first-quarter results show evidence of—better sales. For anybody looking for a way to handle the challenges of e-commerce share gains and shifting consumer attitudes, Wal-Mart may have put together a convincing playbook.
But it isn’t necessarily a playbook that other retailers can follow. Wal-Mart doesn’t carry as heavy a debt load as do many other retailers, giving it more leeway to invest in sales growth. It is also majority-owned by founder Sam Walton’s family members, who presumably are in the stock for the long haul.

Instead, many other retailers are caught up in a spiral that will be difficult to escape. They have been losing sales as customers have migrated online and shifted spending toward things like going out to eat rather than shopping.
Retailers have cut costs as a result, but that is often damaged the shopping experience—driving customers away. If Wal-Mart is now giving people a more compelling reason to shop at its stores, it is also giving them a reason not to shop elsewhere.
Retailers who had gone from looking over their shoulders for Wal-Mart, to looking over their shoulders for Amazon.com AMZN 0.61 % may have a reason to worry about the Bentonville, Ark., behemoth all over again.
Write to Justin Lahart at justin.lahart@wsj.com