Can Wal-Mart Live Better?

Times are changing for discount giant Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) , and for the first time in almost 20 years, so is its slogan. 

Most shoppers already know Wal-Mart's old tagline, "Always low prices." The new slogan will seek to appeal to customers on a more personal and emotional level: "Save Money. Live Better." The company's new TV ads, which began airing this week, highlight how saving money on the little things can add up for families.

It's not a bad idea. Lots of people probably would like to "live better" these days, and the currently swirling macroeconomic concerns definitely make money an issue for most shoppers. The continued fallout from subprime lending for residential real estate also remains a very real concern, as more and more people have trouble making ends meet. Consumers are a bit spooked, and consumer confidence numbers released today show a sharp drop between August and early September.

I've been a Wal-Mart bear for a couple of years now. Its slowing growth is no surprise, given the chain's behemoth status to begin with. While its rock-bottom prices definitely attract shoppers, it's had a hard time breaking out of its low-income niche to lure Target's (NYSE: TGT  ) more diverse range of customers. Wal-Mart's efforts to go upscale with lines like Metro 7 have fallen flat, and its history of no-frills pricing and merchandise probably creates a psychological barrier for consumers seeking clothing or home decor that's difficult to overcome.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart's PR problems over the years have done the company no favors. "Save Money. Live Better" may ring false to the company's critics, who contend that Wal-Mart's brutal cost-cutting initiatives can make life harder for its employees and host communities. Documentaries like Wal-Mart: The High Cost of a Low Price and websites like Wal-Mart Watch highlight many consumers' negative opinions of the retailer.

Many Fools consider Wal-Mart a prime value stock -- heck, it's a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation -- but I'm still leery of investing in it now, even with a tantalizingly low price-to-earnings ratio. I see little sign that it's done enough to reinvigorate its brand, although its high-profile environmental initiatives might be a step in the right direction.  

It's not impossible for Wal-Mart to pull off a recovery. McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) has been doing a great job of carefully evolving in a changing marketplace, after languishing in poor shape just a few years back.

Then again, "not impossible" isn't exactly a ringing endorsement. Wal-Mart has abundant strategic issues to address as it attempts to get growth back on track. While investors keep watch on those initiatives' success, I'll still be waiting and watching from the sidelines.  

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