Wal-Mart Profit Rises; Soft US Sales a Drag on Revenue

Getty Images

Wal-Mart Stores posted weaker-than-expected quarterly earnings on Thursday due to poor U.S. sales and said its profit for this quarter might also miss Wall Street's forecast as it spends more on its foreign bribery probe, e-commerce, and international operations.

Everything from tax pressures on shoppers to a cool start to spring led to an unexpected 1.4 percent drop in sales at Walmart U.S. stores open at least a year.

Shares of the world's largest retailer were down 2.1 percent at $78.15 after falling as much as 3.2 percent earlier in the session. The stock had hit a new high of $79.96 on Wednesday. (Click here to track the market reaction to Wal-Mart's earnings report.)

"We hadn't seen the business turn around particularly in April," said ITG analyst John Tomlinson. "That was a concern because at that point you would think tax refunds and lower gas prices would have started to help the business."

Earlier this year, Wal-Mart said that delays in tax refund checks from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service would crimp shoppers' spending on discretionary items. But the effects went beyond that, and the drop in refunds pressured shoppers and, in turn, sales at the company's U.S. stores.

"We do know that the lack of IRS refund checks did hurt our consumers," Wal-Mart Chief Financial Officer Charles Holley told reporters. "In fact, the IRS, I think, has said that they've estimated that there were about $9 billion less in refund checks, and we certainly cashed less of those checks."

(Read More: Wal-Mart vs. the Feds: Who's the Low-Wage Job King?)

The company forecast earnings of $1.22 to $1.27 per share for its second quarter, which began on May 1. Analysts had been expecting $1.29, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. The year-earlier profit was $1.18 per share.

Weather, Taxes Hit Sales

First-quarter same-store sales at Walmart U.S., by far the company's largest unit, fell 1.4 percent. Both Wal-Mart and analysts had expected such sales to be about flat with those of a year earlier.

Walmart U.S. Chief Executive Officer Bill Simon said the delay in income tax refund checks, a 2 percent increase in payroll taxes and "some of the most unfavorable spring weather we've seen in recent years across much of the country" hurt business in his stores.

Visits to Walmart U.S. stores open at least a year fell 1.8 percent, while the average amount spent per trip rose 0.4 percent.

Sales of warm-weather items, from outdoor furniture and sporting goods to fans and spring clothes, were challenged, particularly from mid-March to mid-April, Simon said. At the same time, price increases in grocery items were lower than expected, "and in fact, we had some deflation in areas like dry grocery," he said on a recorded call.

Weakness during the quarter was not limited to Wal-Mart. Target, for example, said in April that its same-store sales were likely to come in lower than expected because of soft demand for spring merchandise and weather-sensitive items. It reports results next week.

This week, both Macy's and Kohl's said weather had hurt their quarterly sales.

(Read More: Kohl's Earnings Top Forecast, but Weather Hurts Sales)

Consumers have seen some relief as gas prices have retreated, but "there's going to be some choppiness" for retailers as it takes little to spook shoppers, ITG's Tomlinson said.

Holley said Wal-Mart was seeing "very healthy, positive" same-store sales so far in the second quarter at Walmart U.S. and also feels good about sales at its Sam's Club warehouse chain, which caters to clients such as small business owners.

Meanwhile, Sam's Club raised some of its annual membership fees by $5 and $10, bringing them to $45. Sam's Club's highest fee remains at $100, which is $10 below that of rival Costco Wholesale.

Bribery Probe Costs

In 2011, Wal-Mart began a probe into alleged violations of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and whether the company had handled such matters appropriately.

The situation drew public attention in April 2012, when the New York Times reported that management at Wal-Mart de Mexico orchestrated bribes of $24 million to help it grow quickly in the last decade and that the U.S. parent's top brass tried to cover it up.

Wal-Mart spent $73 million on FCPA work in the first quarter, rather than the $40 million to $45 million it had anticipated. It expects to spend another $60 million to $65 million in the second quarter.

(Read More: Wal-Mart's Staffing Levels Criticized Over Not-So-Fresh Groceries)

About $44 million of the first-quarter FCPA costs stemmed from ongoing inquiries and investigations, while the other $29 million was for a global compliance review, program enhancements and organizational changes, Wal-Mart said.

In the first quarter, profit fell in Wal-Mart's international division, with operating costs growing faster than sales. The company said it was spending more in areas such as international e-commerce and is also stepping up compliance efforts across 14 areas from ethical sourcing to licenses and permits.

Wal-Mart is also spending on behind-the-scenes changes such as setting up a shared services group for its Latin American businesses.

Missing Expectations

Wal-Mart earned $3.78 billion, or $1.14 per share, in the first quarter ended on April 30, up from $3.74 billion, or $1.09 per share, a year earlier.

The analysts' average estimate was $1.15 per share. Wal-Mart had forecast a profit of $1.11 to $1.16 per share.

First-quarter revenue rose 1 percent to $114.19 billion. Analysts expected $116.29 billion.

The company said it expected second-quarter same-store sales, excluding those of fuel, to be flat to up 2 percent at Walmart U.S. and up 1 percent to 3 percent at Sam's Club.

Wal-Mart spent about 2 cents per share on e-commerce investments in the first quarter and expects to spend about the same amount in the second quarter as part of its plan for total spending of 9 cents per share for the year.