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Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) has upped the ante this year, expanding operations around the globe, launching into the social-media realm, and conducting a whole host of test projects. Although these initiatives appear to be a step in the right direction, rising crude prices and cash-strapped consumers are helping to spoil the party.
A brief look at the numbers
Strength in Wal-Mart's overseas operations helped send quarterly revenues up 4.4%, to $104.2 billion. Net income rose 3%, to $3.4 billion, from the year-ago quarter. U.S. comparable sales, however, have proved to be a dampener, declining for an eighth straight quarter.
Lately, it seems many bread-and-butter Wal-Mart customers have gone in one of two directions. On one side, ultra-price-conscious consumers have turned to companies like Family Dollar (NYSE: FDO ) and Aldi. On the other, they have turned to more upscale discount stores such as Costco (Nasdaq: COST ) and Target (NYSE: TGT ) .
To help stem these trends, Wal-Mart has shifted focus to re-establish the one-stop shopping experience. It is also working hard to stock items that it had previously stopped selling and also returned to its "Every Day Low Price" campaign. But will that be enough?
Rising oil prices have put a serious strain on the spending power of consumers, especially low-income consumers in the U.S. Gas prices have risen to $4 a gallon, causing shoppers to make fewer visits to the store. Wal-Mart is increasingly global in scale, but it can't shrug off the fact that U.S. operations still contribute 62% of the company's revenue.
The Web and social media
Wal-Mart has upped efforts to expand online initiatives. A couple of months ago, it launched its Pick Up Today program, which allows customers to preorder items online and pick them up later.
Following in the footsteps of grocers such as Safeway (NYSE: SWY ) and SUPERVALU (NYSE: SVU ) , Wal-Mart recently began testing an online grocery delivery system called Wal-Mart to Go, where daily household and food products are delivered to the customers' doorsteps. These efforts may help increase sales, especially to people most strapped for time. Along these same lines, Wal-Mart recently acquired social-media group Kosmix in a bid to take advantage of the growing world of social media and e-commerce.
The one positive I saw in the first quarter is Wal-Mart's international operations, which account for almost 26% of its revenues. That has shown indisputable signs of growth, with strong gains seen in its Mexican, Chilean, and Chinese operations. The company also continues to make huge investments in Brazil.
The Foolish bottom line
Rising oil prices and budget-conscious consumers are hitting the company hard. Time will tell whether Wal-Mart's investments will help correct some disturbing trends in the business.