The nation’s two leading discount chains, Walmart and Target Corp., ended their fiscal years with somewhat varied results, but executives at both chains voiced cautious optimism about the year ahead.


Walmart, Target Corp., Bill Simon, president and chief executive officer of Walmart U.S., Target, chairman, president and chief executive officer Gregg Steinhafel, PFresh


















































































































































































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Discounters cautious

March 5th, 2012

NEW YORK – The nation’s two leading discount chains, Walmart and Target Corp., ended their fiscal years with somewhat varied results, but executives at both chains voiced cautious optimism about the year ahead.

 Walmart posted a 3.4% increase in fourth quarter income from continuing operations to $5.19 billion, while net income at Target fell 5.2% to $981 million (including discontinued operations, Walmart’s net income fell 14.7% to $5.16 billion). Both retailers achieved modest single-digit growth in sales, but reported different holiday experiences.

Walmart U.S., the company’s flagship division, saw sales gain 2.4% to $72.79 billion, but executives were cheered by the fact that the segment posted its second consecutive quarterly increase in comparable-store sales, which improved 1.5%.

"All three Walmart U.S. geographic units delivered positive comps, reinforcing that our plan is working and resonating with customers," said Bill Simon, president and chief executive officer of Walmart U.S. "Our stores have greater price leadership, broader assortment and improved on-shelf availability. The combination of these factors contributed to positive traffic."

During a prerecorded call Simon noted that Walmart U.S. experienced a great holiday season, starting in October as its layaway program lured more shoppers than visited its stores a year ago. "Black Friday sales were strong, and customers continued to respond favorably throughout Christmas and into New Year," said Simon. "Our comprehensive marketing campaign helped tie it all together and drive traffic."

At Target, on the other hand, while overall sales rose 3.3% to $20.9 billion and comparable-store sales grew 2.2%, the latter fell more than a percentage point short of management’s ­expectations.

"This shortfall was concentrated in the peak of the holiday season, as promotional activity throughout retail was exceptionally intense and we chose to maintain an appropriate balance between driving sales and profitability," explained chairman, president and chief executive officer Gregg Steinhafel during a conference call with analysts. "Post holiday, the pace of our sales returned to the much stronger pre-holiday pace, and we’ve seen momentum build, particularly in discretionary ­categories."

In light of those results and trends, Steinhafel said Target expects a slow and uncertain economic recovery despite some encouraging indicators. "We expect we’ll continue to see mixed signals in the economy going forward," he added. "Yet even our base assumption of a continued slow and uneven recovery would allow us to stay on track to achieve our long-term financial goals of $200 billion or more in sales and $8 or more in earnings per share by 2017."

Not surprisingly, Simon’s view of the economy is similar, and he expects customers to continue to seek value in a still-challenging economy marked by spiralling gas prices. As a result, the division is projecting comparable-store sales for the first quarter of fiscal 2013 to range from flat to up 2%.

While Target did not provide sales or earnings forecasts for the first quarter of its 2012 fiscal year, it does predict full-year comparable-store sales growth of 3% or slightly more. However, its sales-driving strategies are expected to result in slight pressure on gross margin.

Nevertheless, Target is projecting earnings of $4.55 to $4.75 per share for the full year, significantly ahead of the $4.27 average estimate among analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. For its part, Walmart reaffirmed its October estimate of $4.72 to $4.92 per share.

Target did catch analysts’ attention by scaling back the pace of its PFresh remodel program. This year the company aims to complete only about 230 remodels, compared with nearly 400 in fiscal 2011. Steinhafel noted that the chain began the program in its higher-volume stores and is now extending it into lower-volume outlets. “We believe that this cadence is more appropriate as we go forward,” he said. He added that the expanded grocery offering in PFresh stores continues to drive traffic and that the early remodels are meeting expectations in their second year.

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