The big-box retailer is laser-focused on internal initiatives, according to Wal-Mart's head of U.S. e-commerce, Marc Lore. That includes luring more high-end brands to sell on Walmart.com and across its stores, expanding an online grocery pickup service and keeping prices competitive but not necessarily at rock bottom.
Wal-Mart's stock rocketed more than 10 percent Thursday, reaching an all-time high, as Wall Street rallied behind the company's upbeat third-quarter results and heavy momentum heading into the holiday season.
"The discount giant is clearly reaping the benefits of its massive investments in associates, stores, technology, and acquisitions," Retail Metrics' Ken Perkins wrote in a note to clients. "Walmart is taking share and growing its food business."
Food was a notable bright spot in Wal-Mart's latest quarter, even in the midst of Amazon buying supermarket chain Whole Foods and beginning to slash prices on frequently purchased items. Target has also made additional price cuts in recent months, aligning more closely with Wal-Mart's "everyday low price" model.
But shoppers continue to flock to Wal-Mart for fresh produce, bakery items and meat, management pointed out. Currently, more than 1,100 of the retailer's U.S. stores can fulfill online grocery orders for in-person pickup, and Wal-Mart plans to add another 1,000 locations to that list next year.
"New customers, suppliers and partnerships are coming to Wal-Mart," as its grocery and other initiatives blossom, Chief Executive Doug McMillon said on a call with analysts and investors. "We're making good progress attracting premium brands to [Walmart.com] such as KitchenAid and Bose."
Over the past year, Wal-Mart said, it tripled the number of items on Walmart.com to reach more than 70 million SKUs today, and some of that growth stems from unique relationships with well-known brands.
Earlier this week, the company announced an upcoming partnership with Hudson's Bay's Lord & Taylor, where Walmart.com will feature a "store within a store" for the department store chain's merchandise.
Wal-Mart's Lore has already hinted at more of these types of partnerships to come, as it prepares to launch a redesigned website with a focus on fashion and home goods. Next year, Walmart.com will also run Jet.com's "smart-cart" feature, which grants shoppers cheaper prices if they pack more items together in one box, use a debit card when paying for purchases, or opt out of returns.
Wal-Mart's acquisition of Jet about one year ago has allowed the company to tap into Jet's technology, its younger consumer base and private-label penetration.
As part of a strengthened digital push, Wal-Mart will hire about 2,000 "category specialists" to monitor the company's website and rewrite item descriptions, among other tasks. The personal touches are aimed at holding onto existing customers, but also attracting a more "affluent" shopper.
"Walmart's longer-term aim is clear: it wants to become the go-to online destination for both every day and specialty items," GlobalData Retail Managing Director Neil Saunders wrote in a note to clients.
Meantime, "for a retailer of its size and scale, we believe that Walmart's ability to keep its stores growing is impressive," Saunders added.
According to Cowen & Co. analyst Oliver Chen, "[P]hysical stores arm Wal-Mart in the digital war."
Without such a vast physical store footprint, Amazon's retail strategy has been to partner with brands, including Nike, Tapestry's Kate Spade and Levi Strauss, to create a broader and more appealing merchandise assortment on Amazon.com.
And on Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that this holiday season Calvin Klein will for the first time sell new underwear styles only through Amazon, bypassing traditional department stores. That marks another brand in Amazon's bucket.
Still, Wal-Mart has a lot of good things going for it, especially heading into the holidays. The retailer has set expectations for comparable sales at U.S. stores, excluding fuel, to increase as much as 2 percent in the fiscal fourth quarter, which would be slightly better compared with last year.
"We expect top-line growth going forward to be led more by comp sales and eCommerce with less emphasis on new units in the U.S.," Chief Financial Officer Brett Biggs said. "We have good sales momentum and cost transformation is gaining traction."