Why Cheap Just Isn't Enough Anymore for Walmart

Cheap Isn't Enough at Walmart Anymore, Q4 Report Reveals
Getty Images/Justin Sullivan
Walmart Stores (WMT) has gone from being Sam Walton's modest five-and-dime store to ruling the roost as the world's largest retailer. However, it's starting to struggle lately, and that was clearly evident in Thursday morning's quarterly report.

Walmart's net sales grew by a weaker than expected 1.4 percent, and that was solely the handiwork of the struggling discounter adding more stores. Comparable-store sales for Walmart in the U.S. shrank by 0.4 percent during the seasonally potent holiday quarter, in line with the negative comps that it posted for the entire year.

Walmart's earnings guidance for the current quarter is well short of Wall Street expectations, and that's after spending $6.7 billion over the past year to buy back stock in a move that typically inflates profitability on a per-share basis.

Something's wrong, and Walton wouldn't like it if he were still alive.

Burning the Candle at Both Ends

Clearly folks aren't shopping at Walmart the way that they used to, and Walmart is quick to fault reductions in government benefits, higher taxes and stingier banks tightening credit.

This is coming at the worst possible time. Slowing sales is one thing, but it comes as the costs of running its business are inching higher. Walmart is playing the Obamacare card, pointing out that it has higher group health care costs to pay. Despite protests for Walmart to raise its wages, it's already spending more per employee.

Walmart is also trying to beef up its online presence with big investments in e-commerce. It is also accelerating the expansion of smaller stores and Sam's Club warehouse clubs across the country.

The end result is that Walmart sees operating margins contracting in the coming year. Put another way, the discount department store operator sees sales growing faster than its operating income. That wouldn't be too bad if its registers were ringing up a lot of sales, but it's just not happening.

Falling Short at Target Practice

This should have been a great quarter for Walmart. The employment picture is improving, giving a broader array of consumers more money to spend. Then there was the Target (TGT) hacking fiasco.

Three weeks into the holiday shopping season, the "cheap chic" rival warned that customer information was compromised by a hacker that was able to swipe tens of millions of credit card transactions. The well-publicized event should have sent fearful shoppers flocking to Walmart's shelves, and things were so bad at Target that it even resorted to a 10 percent markdown during the final weekend of the Christmas shopping season.

We'll know a little more about Target's likely dreary holiday performance when it reports results later this month, but the one thing we do know is that Walmart was not much of a beneficiary.

The future isn't likely to get any better.

Back to the Future

Back in October, Walmart was forecasting net sales to climb 3 percent to 5 percent higher in the new fiscal year. Now it is warning that it will likely land toward the low end of its earlier guidance.
This isn't the first time that the retailer has failed to live up to its sales growth goals lately.

Walmart has always leaned on low prices as its selling point. Being the world's largest retailer leads to economies of scale and purchasing advantages that it passes on to customers.

Technology is big at Walmart. It crunches data on sales and shopping trends, all in an effort to keep costs low by stocking what folks are buying and turning over inventory as many times as possible.

Unfortunately, being cheap isn't enough. There were plenty of retailers posting negative comps this season, but there also several big chains that were able to grow in this climate.

Walmart's reputation for being cheap could be more a liability than an asset these days as folks with a little more money in their pockets upgrade to more traditional stores. Walmart can point to a list of factors that have weighed on comps during this economic recovery, but it ultimately leads to the retailer needing to refresh its image with consumers if it wants to win shoppers back.

Walmart can't discount its way to greatness anymore. Customers are demanding more than cheap prices, and Walmart is going to have to find a way to figure that out before it's too late.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

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Robert Hart

Walmart really isn't that cheap anymore. It might be a few cents less here and there but that isn't enough to care about these days. You could spend more than that on the gas to get there. Buying from Walmart also means getting no personal service and no help if there is a problem with your purchase. Their staff knows nothing about anything.

With their buying power, nobody should be able to touch their prices but you find better deals on eBay or Amazon. They should fire all of their buyers for being incompetent.

Their store design is terrible too. It's a mess. They sell a lot a low quality goods which are only cheap because they are poorly made. It's only a saving if you get high quality stuff for a lower price. If I replace your Rolls Royce with a Ford for less money, I haven't really saved anything.

They should get rid of their stores and just be an online retailer if they want to stay cheap. They could fire a few million employees and pass the savings on to me.

August 12 2015 at 11:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't shop at Walmart and would not for any reason. They are part and parcel of the demise of American manufacturing as their purchasing dept demanded products be made in China not to mention how they destroyed ma and pa shops and small town across the nation. Wal mart employees and their families cost the US taxpayer 56 billion a year in health care costs alone. The remaining 4 greedy owners are all in the top
15 wealthiest people on the planet. The high price we've paid as a nation for their "low cost" surely has NOT been worth it. People care about America wouldn't shop there.

February 21 2014 at 3:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have had three things bought from Walmart break in past 6 months. One was a timer that broke after 2nd use. Maybe sales are down because quality has deteriorated.

February 21 2014 at 1:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Walmart has been exposed for putting American manufacturing workers out of a job, so that they could get cheap,subpar Chinese products to boost their profits. America has noticed and now Walmart is paying the price. Sam Walton would be ashamed of what has happened to the company he worked hard to build from the ground up. For those of you to young to remember, when Walmart started getting big, Sam Walton's pledge was to support American products and he did just that. I remember checking labels and there were plenty of Made in USA products in those stores way back when. Mr. Walton passed away and whoever took control of his company got greedy and ruined Walmart.

February 20 2014 at 9:55 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Spgfld Tom

Dirty stores and surly employees...gee, I wonder what the problem could be? The parking lot of my local Walmart is full of semi trucks/trailers that are allowed to park there as a "convenience" to the truckers. Any company that would inconvenience customers to convenience truck drivers (btw - these are not Walmart trucks) obviously doesn't need my business.

February 20 2014 at 8:20 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

I used to work for the Walmart distribution center and my experience there was okay however there were times where I thought we weren't getting paid enough for the work we did.

February 20 2014 at 4:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply