Wal-Mart Stores Inc. yesterday reported its lowest quarterly earnings growth in four years, reflecting costs from three powerful hurricanes and higher energy prices. But analysts remained optimistic that sales during the holiday shopping season would be strong.
The nation's largest retailer said it earned a record $2.37 billion in its fiscal third quarter, up just 3.85 percent from its nearly $2.29 billion in the corresponding period a year earlier. For the three months ended Oct. 31, Wal-Mart said revenue increased by more than 10 percent, to a record $76.25 billion.
Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma battered Wal-Mart during the third quarter, temporarily closing nearly 300 stores and resulting in forfeiture of $40 million in profit, according to the company. Eight stores remain closed.
In addition, high fuel prices increased the company's operating costs -- and may have made shoppers think twice about pulling out their wallets. Wal-Mart's many low- to middle-income customers are the most likely to be affected by the rising gas prices.
Growth over the past three months was the lowest since 2001, when the company posted an earnings increase of just 1.6 percent during the second quarter. Wal-Mart saw its biggest growth about three years ago when quarterly earnings skyrocketed as much as 24.5 percent.
With the day after Thanksgiving, one of the biggest days of shopping season, less than two weeks away, Wal-Mart executives said that they expect a good -- but not great -- holiday season.
Last year, Wal-Mart missed its original sales projections for November because it failed to match competitors' discounts and was forced to reduce its estimates for December. Many retailers likewise posted lukewarm sales.
This year, the company said it has already seen strong sales of electronics, toys, apparel and home furnishings. For the nine months ending Oct. 31, Wal-Mart earned $7.64 billion, up 7.6 percent from $7.1 billion a year earlier.
"Given the obstacles we face, I feel pretty good about our results," chief executive H. Lee Scott Jr. said in a conference call. "Even with the lingering impact of the hurricanes and higher energy prices, I think we will have a good holiday season."
Several analysts said that they expected steady growth for Wal-Mart in the fourth quarter and expressed confidence in the company's long-term health. Despite looming worries about the impact of high heating costs on consumers, analysts said the company has made strides in managing expenses and controlling its inventory. Those changes helped prevent a larger slowdown in the third quarter and could provide greater profits in the future, they said.
"It would be premature to claim early successful turnaround efforts delivered . . . improvement," a report by Goldman Sachs stated. But the third-quarter results proved that the Wal-Mart "can hold the fort when managing through the disruption."
The report also concluded that "the holiday outlook remains optimistic."
Wal-Mart shares ended the day at $49.30, up 30 cents, on the New York Stock Exchange.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart competitor Target Corp. reported yesterday that it expects November sales in stores open at least one year to fall short of projected 4 to 6 percent growth.
Target's fiscal third-quarter profit, released last week, jumped 18 percent year-to-year to $435 million.
Revenue for the three months ended Oct. 29 rose nearly 12 percent, to $12.21 billion.