Big-box retailing behemoth Wal-Mart
Last week, Chief Financial Officer Tom Schoewe presented at a Bank of America Annual Investor Conference to fill investors in on how Wal-Mart plans on putting a difficult second quarter behind it and restoring confidence in its growth potential.
Schoewe opened his presentation by conceding that Wal-Mart's second quarter represented a significant down period in what has been a series of ups and downs for the company. Most concerns have stemmed from the U.S. branch of Wal-Mart, so Schoewe spent most of his time explaining how the firm plans on better managing domestic expansion.
Sam's I am
He then took the opportunity to boast about Sam's Club, which has successfully managed to make up ground against archrival Costco
Recent performance at Sam's was definitely solid, with second-quarter comps growing nearly 6%. However, the segment accounted for only about 12% of total quarterly sales. International performance was also strong and, at 24% of total sales, grew an impressive 15.7% quarter over quarter, led by Mexico, which Schoewe noted is one of the company's "most successful operations," with consumers there embracing Wal-Mart's fervor for providing low costs.
It's the local economy, stupid
However, domestic namesake stores accounted for 65% of sales, so they will continue to drive overall company fortunes. Schoewe was quick to tout a strong August, which brought positive 3.1% comps -- "a little bit ahead of our own guidance" -- as the back-to-school season kicked in. He also cited success in hawking electronics, groceries, and pharmacy drugs, and if you look at these product categories on a standalone basis, Wal-Mart is as large as pure-play industry leaders Best Buy
Unfortunately, home and apparel also account for a big chunk of sales and are struggling as Wal-Mart's core customer is getting hit by rising food inflation and gasoline prices. Schoewe cited internal data showing that shoppers are concerned about the cost of living and worried about whether their own incomes will measure up. He then touched on the latest company mission statement, which is to "save people money so they can live better."
The Wal-Mart debate
Fellow Fool Alyce Lomax recently touched on the debate over the extent to which Wal-Mart really does help people live better. She wondered whether low costs offset Wal-Mart's often-criticized treatment of its employees, or the havoc Wal-Mart can wreak on local communities when a Supercenter comes to town. Schoewe weighed in on the subject by citing a study estimating that Wal-Mart saves the "average family about $2,300 a year" in America. "What the study did is actually looked at not just the impact we would have on those families, but also the overall influence that we have on ourselves and competition," he explained. The calculation, he said, "in the way of savings," totaled a "very impressive $287 billion."
There's little doubt that Wal-Mart does bring lower prices to consumers -- its recent decision to sell a number of generic-drug prescriptions at $4 being one prominent example. Wal-Mart also has plenty of ambition to extend this philosophy to other areas, such as financial services.
On balance, Wal-Mart continues to grow, but it can't quite offset apparel and household-goods weakness with strong trends in other product categories. A number of investors have therefore questioned the company's growth plans here at home. Schoewe even conceded to shareholders that Wal-Mart has "a lot of cash, [but] our free cash flow isn't what it needs to be," and he highlighted plans to slow domestic growth and return capital that would have been spent on new store openings to investors, in the form of share buybacks.
The Foolish bottom line
Overall, Wal-Mart's philosophy remains straightforward. "It's a low-cost model," Schoewe says. And despite the current domestic concerns, the model is powerful and represents a sustainable competitive advantage. The stock will likely remain weak until trends improve here at home, but given the recent valuation and international potential, Wal-Mart is worth keeping an eye on, and the presentation helped highlight the company's key drivers going forward.
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Wal-Mart is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Discover Philip Durell's full list of Wall Street bargains with a 30-day free test drive. Best Buy is a recommendation of both Stock Advisor and Inside Value. Costco is also a Stock Advisor pick. Bank of America is an Income Investor pick.
Fool contributor Ryan Fuhrmann has no financial interest in any company mentioned. Feel free to email him with feedback or to discuss any companies mentioned further. The Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.