It’s been about six months since the recommendation and so far the plan seems to be working.
At a recent investor conference the Wal-Mart U.S. CEO confirmed that the SKU add-back initiatives were delivering 75 to 100 basis point improvements in sales. He also added that food traffic increased by 100 basis points which was helping other business lines. Wal-Mart’s plan looked like it was working. Today (Dec. 14, 2011) the stock trades at $57.60 and Wal-Mart reported 1.3% same-store sales growth for the past quarter in U.S. Wal-Marts. Grocery, health, wellness and hardlines lead the way with positive comps. The company is still working on improving entertainment comparables. Store traffic decreased but the drop was a 160 basis point improvement over last quarter. The drop in traffic was offset with a higher average ticket price.
In addition to continuing with the SKU add back Wal-Mart is looking to reduce SG&A costs. Management has stated their goal is to reduce SG&A costs as a percent of sales by 100 basis points between FY13 and FY17. For a company with a revenue run rate as large as Wal-Mart even a small improvement in SG&A expenses can generate serious cash for shareholders.
Management’s Guidance and Outlook
Management continues to see soft demand in the US. They haven’t seen the environment for their core customer improve but on the other hand they haven’t seen things getting worse. Job security and lack of income continue to be their customer’s biggest worries. This jives with the mainstream economic view that the US is just muddling through the current recession.
The picture in emerging markets seems brighter to management. They are seeing the emergence of a growing middle class that is becoming the core customer of Wal-Mart (or brands owned by Wal-Mart) stores.
For next quarter management expects comparable sales to be flat to up 2% and is predicting EPS slightly higher than last year ($1.42 to $1.48 versus $1.41). Management expects full year EPS to be in the range of $4.45 to $4.51 compared to $4.18 for last year. ROI has slipped slightly from 18.6% to 18.2%.
Wal-Mart’s Holiday Season Strategy
Wal-Mart strategy for driving sales during the holiday includes a Christmas layaway program, a guarantee (“Christmas Price Guarantee”) to match any competitors’ current print ads, introduction of food items such as party trays centered on the holidays, wide assortment of decorations, and ads that reinforce Wal-Mart’s broad product lines. Wal-Mart also intends to make social media advertising a key part of its holiday campaign.
Next Year and Beyond
It seems a foregone conclusion there will be a recession in Europe, growth in the UK is slowing due to austerity measures, and the U.S. is just muddling along with high unemployment and slow growth. Against this dismal backdrop we think Wal-Mart can continue to do well. While a slowing global economy will certainly impact sales, Wal-Mart’s commitment to Everyday Low Prices will certainly be a draw to those with reduced incomes. On the positive side, as management stated emerging market growth continues to be a bright spot and management continues to open new stores internationally.
Another thing investors should keep a careful eye on is gross margins. The rising cost of goods combined with Wal-Mart’s commitment to low prices have reduced gross margins. For example, food costs rose 4% but Wal-Mart chose not to pass most of those costs on. Last quarter gross margins fell by 52 basis points to 24.6%.
Wal-Mart has also been improving its capital expenditure mix. More money is now being spent on opening or expanding new stores rather than more expensive remodels. This means that going forward returns on capital expenditures should be higher than the in the past.
Wal-Mart’s strong international growth, improving comps, and improving capital expenditure mix should offset gross margin declines and a stagnant economy.
Disclosure: No positions
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