Holidays sales were strong, but growth shrinks online as inventory misjudgment hit e-commerce warehouses
Walmart Inc., which had improved its e-commerce operations over the past year in its fierce battle with Amazon.com Inc., stumbled in the fourth quarter after misjudging its online inventory for the holiday season, sending its stock tumbling and slicing more than USD 31 billion from its market capitalization.
Walmart shares fell more than 10% on February 20, 2018, with the downdraft pulling many retail stocks along. It was the biggest one-day drop in stock price in more than two years for the world’s largest retailer.
Walmart Chief Executive Doug McMillon said that as holiday goods like TVs and toys flooded Walmart’s e-commerce warehouses, they squeezed the room for everyday items such as toilet paper. That meant the retailer ran out of some items, hurting online sales. “Our in-stock for basic items suffered as a result,” Mr. McMillon said.
Walmart also said its U.S. profit margins were hit by lower prices and by more sales shifting to the web. Online sales are generally less profitable than those in stores.
The retailer’s shares had skyrocketed this year, boosted by high expectations for its online growth. On Tuesday, Walmart reported a 2.6% gain in overall sales for the quarter ended Jan. 31, for its 14th consecutive quarter of growth. But its U.S. online sales grew only 23 % in the quarter, in contrast with three previous quarters of more than 50 % growth.
That was not enough for investors. “This quarter did not live up to those high expectations,” said Simeon Gutman, a retail analyst for Morgan Stanley.
Still, Mr. McMillon on February 20, 2018, expressed confidence. “Looking ahead, we expect e-commerce growth to increase from the fourth-quarter level as we enter the New Year,” he told analysts.
E-commerce accounts for less than 4 % of Walmart’s over-USD 500 billion in annual revenue. Walmart expects online sales to grow 40 % for the current fiscal year, which ends next Jan. 31.
Walmart has been working quickly to build its e-commerce business in recent years and head off Amazon.com’s dominance online. It has shifted spending to invest in its web operations, including faster home delivery and e-commerce acquisitions. It also has spent to improve existing stores, while it cut jobs and tightened expense controls.
The company closed 10 % of U.S. Sam’s Club locations earlier this year and has slowed Walmart store openings to focus on e-commerce growth.
The retail industry more broadly is struggling to meet the e-commerce challenge. On Tuesday, grocer Albertsons Cos. said it plans to buy the rest of Rite Aid Corp. that is not already being sold to Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. The chief executives of the companies said in interviews Monday the merger is the best way for them to compete against the increasing threaten from Amazon and an emboldened Walmart. Target Corp. bought same-day delivery service Shipt in December.
Walmart’s acquisition of online store Jet in September 2016 was a big part of the retailer’s e-commerce strategy, and new features, like free two-day shipping on more items and an expanded online selection helped boost online sales quickly.
Walmart has added hundreds of online grocery pickup locations at stores, which are counted in the e-commerce sales figures.
On February 20, 2018 Walmart signalled a shift in its online strategy, saying it would put more focus on acquiring new customers for its main Walmart website, which has national brand recognition, and would slow marketing spending for Jet, which caters to higher-income, urban shoppers.
That will lead to slowing sales for Jet temporarily, Mr. McMillon said.
“E-commerce growth, it ebbs and flows,” at all retailers, said Brendan Witcher, principal analyst at Forrester Research. The latest quarter indicated e-commerce growth at Walmart remained healthy, he added.
Walmart said February 20, 2018, earnings per share would come in between USD 4.75 and USD 5.00 for the fiscal year, lower than some had been anticipating, mainly due to a smaller-than-expected benefit from recent tax-code changes. The company said the new U.S. tax law added USD 207 million to earnings in its latest quarter, but that amount could shift in future quarters as the company completes its analysis.
Walmart’s overall holiday sales rose on a strong economy. Improvements to its food and household-goods areas also boosted sales, the retailer said.
Holiday sales, buoyed by rising wages and low unemployment, were strong at many traditional retailers and at Amazon.com. Last month Target, Macy’s Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. said holiday sales rose.
On an adjusted basis, Walmart reported a profit of USD 1.33 a share for its fourth quarter, below the USD 1.37 expected by analysts polled by Thomson Reuters.
Walmart said the closings of 63 Sam’s Clubs during the quarter and discontinuing real-estate projects and activities related to the new tax code reduced per-share earnings by US 60 Cents.