Wal-Mart to give investors look at business plans


NEW YORK -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executives are expected to brief investors Wednesday on topics ranging from the retailer's plans to expand its small stores to its strategies for improving profitability in its overseas business.

The annual shareholders meeting, to be held near Wal-Mart's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., comes as the company's shares have been on a tear, fueled by a turnaround of its namesake business in the U.S., where it has been re-emphasizing its rock bottom low prices.

Wal-Mart's stock is up 24 percent since the beginning of the year and is hovering around $74.

But the big question is whether the world's largest retailer can keep that momentum going, given a slowly recovering U.S. economy and a financial crisis in Europe.

The discounter is also confronting a worker walk-out that has expanded to at least eight cities. Still, the number of employees involved so far is about 160, a tiny fraction of Wal-Mart's U.S. workforce of 1.3 million workers at its namesake division.

Investors seem to be looking past any worker unrest for now.

"We will be listening for how (Wal-Mart) will look to continue the good momentum," Deborah Weinswig, an analyst at Citi Research, said in a recent note.

The latest quarterly results showed Wal-Mart's growth pace has slowed. Its total revenue came in short of Wall Street estimates, and the discounter is delaying store expansion plans in Mexico, its largest international division, as it deals with bribery allegations there. It's also scaling back store growth plans in China and Brazil to boost profitability in those operations.

Moreover, Wal-Mart said in the latest quarter that its low-income customers are struggling in the U.S. and abroad. Analysts will be looking for any comments about the financial health of its customers.

Still, Wal-Mart's latest results indicate that the company's namesake U.S. business may have turned a corner.

Citigroup's Weinswig said that she will be looking to see how the company plans to expand its small stores under the Express and Neighborhood Market banners.

Analysts will also be looking to get updates on how Wal-Mart plans to make its international business more profitable, particularly in Brazil and China. They'll also be expecting a progress report on Mexico.