After trailing the market for most of the year, Walmart (NYSE:WMT) shareholders are now on pace for positive returns in 2018. The retailing titan is up roughly 6% with just a few weeks left, compared to a 4% uptick in the S&P 500.
Let's take a closer look at Walmart's recent results, and what they imply for investors heading into 2019.
Riding the industry rebound
The key theme in Walmart's 2018 has been healthier sales trends at physical locations paired with mixed results from the online channel. The chain's first report of the year was a good example of those opposing trends. Revenue growth reached a healthy 2.6% at its U.S. locations thanks to an encouraging acceleration of customer-traffic gains. However, slower e-commerce gains disappointed investors.
Walmart's next earnings report, in mid-May, also included enough drawbacks to keep investors feeling cautious. Sales and traffic figures remained in positive territory, for example, but growth rates trailed those of rivals like Costco and Target. At the same time, Walmart's aggressive push into the digital sales channel produced significantly lower operating profits, which the company hopes is just a temporary speed bump on the way toward steadier growth.
The stock's path shifted in concert with Walmart's fiscal second-quarter report in early August. That announcement finally showed evidence that management's multichannel rebound strategy is working. Sales bounced higher by 4.5% in the core U.S. segment for a healthy acceleration over the prior quarter's 2.1% uptick. And while that result trailed Target's 6.5% spike and Costco's 8% boost, it still marked a 10-year high for the retailing titan. Walmart then boosted its fiscal-year outlook following what CEO Doug McMillon called "a great quarter with strong results and momentum across the business."
On to 2019
The final verdict on 2018 will come down to how well the retailer performs during the competitive holiday shopping sales period. Investors will get good indications about that result when Walmart posts its fiscal third-quarter report on Nov. 15, just a few days before the critical Black Friday selling weekend. Another period of healthy customer traffic would imply strong industry growth and light inventory, which might even take pressure off retailers to slash prices this year.
Walmart will have an opportunity to adjust its full-year sales outlook at that point, too. Its current forecast calls for sales in the U.S. business to rise by about 3%, up from the prior 2% target. The Sam's Club segment should grow at about the same pace, while e-commerce gains are expected to be much stronger.
Looking further out, investors should expect Walmart to continue investing in the digital sales channel to the detriment of short-term profit results. That was the company's strategy back when its physical stores were seeing only modest growth, and the biggest thing that has changed lately is that healthy in-store demand is helping fund a more aggressive, quicker evolution into a fully multichannel seller. It's anyone's guess where profit margins end up at that point, but for now it's clear that Walmart isn't about to give up its position as the world's biggest retailer.