Walmart 'holding its own' against Amazon ahead of earnings report

  • Walmart is set to report earnings for the holiday quarter before the bell Tuesday.
  • Analysts want to see if the company met its target for 40 percent sales growth online last year.
  • Tariffs on goods from China and India's e-commerce regulations are also top of mind, in light of Walmart's acquisition of Flipkart.
A Walmart worker organizes products for Christmas season at a Walmart store in Teterboro, New Jersey.
Eduardo Munoz | Reuters
A Walmart worker organizes products for Christmas season at a Walmart store in Teterboro, New Jersey.

Walmart is set to report quarterly earnings Tuesday morning before the bell. And the retailer looks to be in decent shape heading out of the holiday season, especially when compared with its online rival Amazon.

Last year, the big-box retailer captured roughly 4 percent of all e-commerce sales in the U.S. and 0.4 percent of the total U.S. retail market, according to market research group eMarketer. Based on the firm's data, Walmart surpassed Apple to become the No. 3 internet retailer, behind only Amazon and eBay.

Analysts are expecting Walmart to report adjusted earnings per share of $1.33 for the fiscal fourth quarter with sales of $138.7 billion, according to a poll by Refinitiv. Same-store sales are forecast to rise 2.9 percent overall.

The retailer is "holding its own" against Amazon, according to Cowen and Co. analyst Oliver Chen. Cowen in a survey of U.S. consumers during the fourth quarter found the overlap of shoppers who buy things on both Amazon and Walmart to be declining (for the third straight quarter), as satisfaction scores are trending higher for Walmart.

"Shoppers are clearly noticing Walmart's price investments," Chen said. That and more convenient shipping options — like buy online, pick up in store — being rolled out at Walmart stores across the country.

Last year, Walmart was targeting e-commerce sales growth of 40 percent. Analysts will be looking on Tuesday to see if it got there. The company has invested heavily in adding more products — like celebrity-inspired apparel and high-end camping gear — to its website in order to achieve that target. It's also been on a buying spree of online brands like Art.com and Bare Necessities.

That growth has required heavy investments online, however, which have eaten into profits and overshadowed otherwise upbeat results in recent quarters. Analysts continue to expect these e-commerce investments, in addition to Walmart's push in grocery, to weigh on margins. That's something Amazon has largely been able to get away with, more than other retailers like Walmart and Target.

"Caution on margins is warranted," Chen said about both Walmart and Target's upcoming fiscal fourth-quarter reports.

Other looming headwinds for Walmart could be the recent U.S. government shutdown, the longest in history, running from Dec. 22 to Jan. 25 and putting some Americans without a paycheck during that time. There's also concern that tax refunds are shrinking this year, and that could mean consumers have less to spend at stores like Walmart.

Dismal December sales data released by the Commerce Department earlier this week also put a damper on the retail industry, which had been citing high consumer confidence and low unemployment as reasons for a strong holiday season and 2019. Target has already said same-store sales were up 5.7 percent during the holidays, surpassing some analysts' expectations. But other retailers like Macy's, J.C Penney and Kohl's underwhelmed.

Walmart, though, with its large grocery and everyday essentials business, is less susceptible to suffering from shoppers pulling back on spending on items they don't need.

"Walmart likely had a solid 2018 holiday season, helped by favorable macro trends and initiatives related to merchandising and digital," Telsey Advisory Group analyst Joseph Feldman said.

Analysts will also be looking on Tuesday to see what Walmart has to say about more tariffs on goods from China and India's tightening e-commerce regulations, in light of Walmart's $16 billion acquisition of Flipkart. India has said it will now ban internet retailers like Flipkart from selling products from companies in which they hold an equity interest.

Walmart has already trimmed its earnings outlook for 2019, citing the impact of the Flipkart deal. It's also said it expects e-commerce growth will be less robust in 2019 compared with last year, as it's still fighting to win more shoppers online and looking for ways to do that.

Walmart shares are up more than 5 percent so far this year, compared with the S&P 500 Retail ETF (XRT), which has gained 10 percent.

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