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Wal-Mart Had A Tough Year, But Workers And Shoppers Got A Boost

Customers shop at a Wal-Mart Supercenter store in Springdale, Ark., last summer.
Danny Johnston
Customers shop at a Wal-Mart Supercenter store in Springdale, Ark., last summer.

These things we know for sure:

  • The sun rises in the East.
  • The Earth is round.
  • Wal-Mart sales increase every year.
  • Oops. We'll need to scratch that last one.

    On Wednesday, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reported that that for the fiscal year ended in January, annual revenues totaled $482.1 billion — down 0.7 percent from the previous year's $485.7 billion.

    Since its 1962 founding, the ever-expanding retailer's sales have grown each year.

    But in recent weeks, the retail giant has offered going-out-of-business discounts while closing underperforming stores, causing revenues to shrink. Also, with more stores now operating overseas, Wal-Mart is more vulnerable to currency fluctuations. That exposure hurt over the past year as currency adjustments made the company's total revenues appear smaller.

    Investors should not look for a quick turnaround. Wal-Mart says it expects sales growth "to be relatively flat" in the new fiscal year.

    And it's not just sales — profits were down, too. Annual operating income fell 11.2 percent, to just $24.1 billion from the previous year's $27.1 billion.

    In the final quarter of the fiscal year, net income fell 7.9 percent, to $4.57 billion, and revenue slipped 1.4 percent, to $129.7 billion.

    All of that hurt the stock price, which had fallen by more than 4 percent as of 1 p.m. ET, down to around $63.40.

    Bottom line: tough day for Wal-Mart. But if you read between all the lines, the earnings report had good news for workers and consumers.

    One factor that hurt the company's shareholders but helped its workers was the push to raise wages. In many states, lawmakers raised the minimum wage last year, helping lift the wage floor for retail workers.

    And now, Wal-Mart is voluntarily boosting paychecks. "On Feb. 20, we'll raise the starting wage to at least $10 per hour for hourly associates hired before Jan. 1, 2016," Wal-Mart U.S. President and CEO Greg Foran said on an earnings conference call.

    And consumers benefited from factors that made Wal-Mart sales look smaller. Cheaper energy and a stronger dollar have been helping hold down the cost of goods and foods. That's great for shoppers, but for Wal-Mart, falling prices make it harder to show revenue growth.

    "We experienced significant headwinds from deflation in meat and dairy products," Wal-Mart Stores President and CEO Doug McMillon said on the call.

    One more thing that was nice for consumers: A warm December cut the need for gloves and shovels. "Additional sales pressure came from warmer-than-normal temperatures early in the quarter," Foran said.

    So if you spent Christmas Day grilling steaks outside, you might have been smiling. But Wal-Mart sales were hurting.

    Still, the news wasn't all bad for Wal-Mart. In fact, if you don't include sales from stores that have closed and only compare same-store sales and foot traffic from one year to the next, then Wal-Mart looks better.

    "Comp sales were positive for the sixth straight quarter, and driven by our fifth straight quarter of positive traffic," Foran noted on the conference call.

    McMillon says that despite various setbacks in the past year, "we're making progress with customers and associates and feel good about where we're heading."

    And here's another bit of good news for investors: Wal-Mart said it is raising its annual dividend by 4 cents, to $2 a share.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Marilyn Geewax is a contributor to NPR.
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