Walmart‘s fourth-quarter earnings felt short of Wall Street’s expectations on Thursday, as the retailer aims to turn the strength of its e-commerce business during the pandemic into lasting momentum and higher profits by boosting investment.
Shares are down nearly 5% in premarket trading, as investors reacted to the retailer’s warning that it expects sales to moderate this year. It said earnings per share will decline slightly, but be flat to higher after excluding divestitures.
In the latest quarter, Walmart’s e-commerce sales in the U.S. grew by 69% — a large number, but the slowest growth rate since the start of the global health crisis. Same-store sales in the U.S. grew by 8.6%, higher than the increase of 5.8% expected by a StreetAccount survey. Its subsidiary, Sam’s Club, also reported low single-digit same-store sales growth, excluding fuel and tobacco.
The big-box retailer has benefited from pandemic trends, as Americans buy more groceries, cleaning products and other essentials. It got a boost in the fourth quarter as many customers spent their stimulus checks.
But the pandemic has also boosted the cost of running its business. In the fourth quarter, Walmart said it tallied $1.1 billion in Covid-related costs.
Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said that the company is stepping up investments to adjust to the significant ways that retail has changed over the past year. He said it will also boost the wage of U.S. workers, raising the average for hourly employees to above $15 per hour.
“This is a time to be even more aggressive because of the opportunity we see in front of us,” he said in a news release. “The strategy, team and capabilities are in place. We have momentum with customers, and our financial position is strong.”
For the three months ended Jan. 31, Walmart said posted a loss of $2.09 billion, or 74 cents per share, compared with earnings of $4.14 billion, or $1.45 share, a year earlier. The company said a loss on its U.K. and Japanese operations reduced earnings by $2.66 per share, which was partially offset by a gain of 49 cents per share on equity investments.
Excluding these and other items, Walmart earned $1.39 per share, missing analysts estimates.
Total revenue grew by 7.3% to $152.1 billion from $141.67 billion a year earlier, topping Wall Street’s expectations of $148.30 billion.
Its membership warehouse club, Sam’s Club, reported same-store sales grew by 8.5% excluding fuel and tobacco. The membership warehouse club’s e-commerce sales jumped by 42%.
Chief Financial Officer Brett Biggs told CNBC that the company could get another boost if the government approves another round of stimulus payments.
“When money hits we see spending pick up pretty quickly and I would anticipate if we get another round of stimulus, which is obviously being debated, that we would see something similar,” he said.
Yet the decelerating pace of e-commerce growth rate points to some challenges it will face as tailwinds from the global health crisis trends fade. More Americans are getting Covid-19 vaccines and can spend their budget in other ways, such as going out to dinner or filling up the gas tank on a commute back to the office.
Walmart is also under pressure to turn thriving parts of its business into money-makers. Online services that have gained popularity, such as curbside pickup, require additional labor as employees pick and pack orders. That translates to higher labor costs that Walmart has not been passing on to its customers, even as more take advantage of the convenience of shopping online.
Walmart’s e-commerce business has had dramatic gains, but it has not yet turned a profit. The company’s However, Biggs said its e-commerce margins continue to improve.
Walmart plans to spend $14 billion on capital expenditures this fiscal year, up from a rate of $10 billion to $11 billion as it invests in supply chain, automation and ways to improve the customer experience, he said.
Walmart is raising its dividend by a penny to 55 cents per share and approved a $20 billion stock buyback program.
—CNBC’s Courtney Reagan contributed to this report.