Wal-Mart’s poor 4th quarter, bleak 2014 outlook bode poorly for retail sector


Wal-Mart, whose Georgia Avenue location in Washington is above, is not alone in issuing disappointing projections. Target reduced its earning estimate for the next quarter, and Sears expects a loss for the year. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Wal-Mart is feeling gloomy about 2014, and it’s not just because of the weather.

Slow holiday sales, cuts to federal programs and winter storms dented the retail giant’s fourth-quarter profit, which fell more than 20 percent, the company said Thursday. But the industry bellwether also issued a bleak forecast for the rest of the year.

“We expect economic factors to have more negative than positive effect on our outlook,” Charles Holley, Wal-Mart’s chief financial officer, said in an earnings call with investors Thursday.

Wal-Mart, like most retailers, was bruised by a short holiday season marked by aggressive discounts. Shoppers stayed home as the weather worsened, or they stuck to their budgets. In addition, Wal-Mart said cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program hit its customer base: At least 20 percent of the retail giant’s shoppers use food stamps, according to Cowen and Co., an equity research group.

Retailers have blamed a brutal winter for weak sales, but Wal-Mart’s pessimism is a sign that 2014 may be difficult for the entire sector, analysts say. Target already lowered its earnings estimate for the next quarter, and Sears is expecting a loss for the year.

“This year will be a bad one for retail,” said David Schick, managing director at Stifel, an equity research group.

Government data show retail sales were worse than estimated over the past two months. In its annual forecast, the National Retail Federation said sales would increase by a little more than 4 percent in 2014, marginally higher than last year.

“The economy remains susceptible to buffets” that could hamper growth, the retail group’s chief economist, Jack Kleinhenz, wrote in a note about the forecast.

The key to retail sales growth lies in the nation’s labor market, which still has not fully recovered, economists say. The country’s past two jobs reports were unusually weak. Wage growth remains slow and unequally distributed. Consumers may be feeling better about the economy, but they do not have as much money to spend. Millions of unemployed Americans also lost access to jobless benefits at the end of 2013.

Economic forces aside, retailers are still adapting to changing shopping habits, analysts say. That includes online and mobile shopping, which stores embraced in larger numbers last year.

In its fourth-quarter earnings report, Wal-Mart said that sales at its U.S. stores fell 0.4 percent and that customer traffic decreased 1.7 percent compared with the same period a year earlier. But the company’s global e-commerce sales grew to more than $10 billion in 2013, an increase of 30 percent over the year before. Sales at its small stores were also up 4 percent in the past year.

Wal-Mart said it would pour resources into online and mobile shopping. The retailer also announced that it would open twice as many neighborhood stores throughout the country. Both moves are a response to customers’ search for more “convenient” shopping options, the company said.

“We’ll invest aggressively in e-commerce and increase our small store rollout in the U.S.,” Douglas McMillon, Wal-Mart’s chief executive, said in a statement.

Wal-Mart’s fourth-quarter consolidated net income fell 21 percent, to $4.4 billion. The company forecast earnings in the range of $1.10 to $1.20 per share for the current fiscal year, compared with $1.14 last year. The retailer cited higher taxes, tighter credit and rising health-care costs as factors that would affect its performance.

Wal-Mart’s share price fell $1.33, or 1.8 percent, to close at $73.52 on Thursday.

Amrita Jayakumar covers federal government contracting for Capital Business, The Post's local business publication.
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