gain@ (Adds comments from earnings conference call, India operation, updates shares)
Feb 19 (Reuters) - A strong U.S. economy boosted Walmart Inc's holiday-quarter sales growth to the best in a decade, lifted by consumer spending in key categories like groceries and increased e-commerce purchases.
Shares of the world's larger retailer rose nearly 4 percent on Tuesday and were up 7 percent so far this year.
Walmart's performance and rival Target Corp's strong holiday sales growth reflected the health of the U.S. consumer as spending remained robust due to a strong labor market and cheaper gasoline prices.
"We still feel pretty good about the consumer. We haven't seen much of a change," Walmart Chief Financial Officer Brett Biggs told Reuters. "The data we are seeing still looks pretty healthy. Gas prices are down year over year, which helps."
The retailer's performance assuaged fears about an impending slowdown in spending this year. U.S. retail sales recorded their biggest drop in more than nine years in December, the government reported last week, as receipts fell across the board, suggesting a sharp slowdown in economic activity at the end of 2018.
Overall sales for the 2018 U.S. holiday shopping season hit a six-year high as shoppers were encouraged by early discounts, according to a Mastercard report in late December.
Walmart sales at U.S. stores open at least a year rose 4.2 percent, excluding fuel, in the fourth quarter ended Jan. 31. The gain exceeded analysts' expectations of 2.96 percent, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.
Sales were also boosted after federal officials distributed food stamp aid early, during the partial government shutdown. The demise of retailer Toys R Us helped Walmart gain toy market share, the company said.
Adjusted earnings per share increased to $1.41 per share, beating expectations of $1.33 per share, according to IBES data from Refinitiv. But the retailer's gross margins declined for the seventh consecutive quarter due to higher transportation costs and e-commerce investments.
Online sales jumped 43 percent in the quarter, in line with the previous quarter's rise, helped by the expansion of Walmart's online grocery pickup and delivery services and a broader assortment on its website.
But the company reiterated that it expected e-commerce losses to increase this year due to ongoing investments. Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said on a conference call the company was focused on getting return customer visits and strengthening product assortment.
The company has expanded a program that allows customers to order groceries online and pick them up at its U.S. stores, a move the retailer said helped expand market share in the category. It said it will have the service at 3,100 stores by next January. At the end of the fourth quarter it was offered at more than 2,100 stores.
Walmart will offer grocery deliveries to about 800 more stores by the end of the year, bringing the total to 1,600 stores.
Grocery sales currently make up 56 percent of total revenue for the retailer. Amazon.com Inc is trying to crack the food category, especially since it bought organic supermarket chain Whole Foods.
Walmart is partnering with third-party couriers and working with so-called gig, or freelance, drivers, who are cheaper than full-time employees, to push down costs, Reuters recently reported.
Google-backed Deliv, a Walmart delivery partner in Miami and San Jose, ended its relationship with the retailer, Reuters reported last week.
The U.S. retailer, which overtook Apple Inc to become the third largest e-commerce retailer last year, is likely to capture a 4.6 percent share of the U.S. e-commerce market, behind eBay Inc and Amazon, according to research firm eMarketer.
Walmart repeated its forecast that fiscal year 2020 earnings per share would decline in the low single digits in percentage terms, compared with last year. Excluding the acquisition of Indian e-commerce firm Flipkart, it sees an increase in the low- to mid-single-digits.
McMillon said the company was disappointed in India's revised e-commerce regulations, which ban companies from selling products via firms in which they have an equity interest and also bar them from making deals with sellers to sell exclusively on their platforms.
He said the Indian government didn't consult with Walmart and other U.S. companies before it changed the rules. "We hope for a collaborative regulatory process going forward, which results in a level playing field," he said.
Walmart expects fiscal year 2020 comparable sales growth of 2.5 percent to 3 percent, excluding fuel and online sales growth of 35 percent.
Total revenue increased 1.9 percent to $138.8 billion, beating analysts' estimates of $138.65 billion. Walmart has recorded 18 quarters, or over four straight years of U.S. comparable sales growth, unmatched by any other retailer.
The stock rose 3.9 percent to $103.93. Target and Costco Wholesale Corp were both up more than 1 percent.
(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)