Gigantic discount-retailer Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT) beat Q3 earnings expectations by a penny on top of a solid sales gain. Now it's looking to the crucial holiday-laden fourth quarter, like a weary parent hunting for a Chicken Dance Elmo.

Sales improved 11.5% to $58.797 billion. Billion! We realize it's nothing new for Wal-Mart, but sometimes the impact's lost when we cut off the zeroes and replace them with a word. In a mere three months, Wal-Mart sold roughly $58,797,000,000 worth of merchandise. Good grief, that's a lot of stuff!

The Dow component earned $1.820 billion, versus $1.481 billion in the prior period. On a per-share basis, that's $0.41, compared to $0.33 -- an increase of 24.2%. About 3.6% of that improvement can be traced to a change in the way Wal-Mart accounts for goodwill.

Comparable store sales, as a whole, were up 3.5%. Breaking them down by division, Wal-Mart stores racked up a comps gain of 4.2%. Sam's Club continues to struggle in its fight with rival Costco(Nasdaq: COST), and only saw a 0.4% comps gain. Sam's Club's operating profit also faltered, down 2.4% to $240 million.

The company managed to pull off a good quarter despite concerns about widespread weakness in its sector. The retailer dampened comps expectations each month of the quarter, and the resulting 3.5% growth is indeed below what most have come to expect from the giant. For the first nine months of the year, though, comps are up 6.1%, which isn't too shabby, given the ugly consumer-spending landscape.

What fate awaits Wal-Mart and the holiday shopping season? We can't know. For its part, the world's biggest retailer remains cautious. Its forecasted earnings are at the low end of expectations, and it expects comps growth of 3% to 5%.

A slow Christmas season would certainly hurt the quarter, but with sales and net income substantially ahead of the first nine months of fiscal 2001, Wal-Mart will likely bring home a festive fiscal 2002.