NEW YORK -- Walmart Stores offered a weak profit outlook Thursday, signaling that it expects economic pressures to keep weighing on its low-income shoppers around the world.
The world's largest retailer also said its fourth-quarter profit, which covers the crucial holiday season, dropped 21 percent. Its Walmart stores recorded their fourth consecutive quarter of declines in revenue at stores open at least a year.
Walmart (WMT), based in Bentonville, Ark., said it would speed up growth plans for its smaller stores under Neighborhood Markets and Walmart Express to cater to shoppers looking for more convenience. It will now open 270 to 300 small stores during the current fiscal year. That's double the initial forecast for adding 120 to 150 stores.
The expansion of the smaller stores outpaces the growth of its supercenters, which had long been the company's growth engine.
Walmart also promised it will sharpen its focus on everyday low prices at its U.S. stores and further push that strategy abroad.
"Customers' shopping habits are changing more rapidly than ever before," said Walmart CEO and President Doug McMillon on a prerecorded call.
Walmart, the first of a slew of major retailers reporting fourth-quarter results, offers worrisome signs for the economy. Walmart is considered an economic bellwether, with the company accounting for nearly 10 percent of nonautomotive retail spending in the U.S.
The company, which operates more than 4,000 stores in the U.S., cited several factors that are weighing on shoppers.
They've been dealing with a 2 percentage point increase in the Social Security payroll tax since Jan. 1, 2013. And the discounter acknowledged that the Nov. 1 expiration of a temporary boost in government food stamps is also hurting customers' ability to spend. Walmart said that excluding the impact from the reduction of the food stamp program, revenue at stores opened at least a year would have been unchanged from a year ago.
On top of that, a series of winter storms have also chilled sales as Walmart was forced to close some stores- or shoppers just didn't want to venture out in the cold. The company said revenue at stores open at least a year fell in the first two weeks of February, the beginning of the first quarter, because of the severe weather. It said that at the height of the storms, it had more than 200 stores closed.
These factors played out in the fourth-quarter earnings results.
Walmart said that it earned $4.43 billion, or $1.36 a share, in the quarter ended Jan. 31. That compares with $5.6 billion, or $1.67 a share, a year earlier.
Excluding charges related to closing stores in Brazil and China, Walmart earned $1.60 a share. Net revenue was up 1.4 percent to $128.79 billion. Analysts were expecting $1.59 a share on revenue of $129.9 billion, according to FactSet.
Revenue at stores open at least a year fell 0.4 percent, the fourth consecutive quarterly decline. But the company said that the metric for its Neighborhood Market stores rose 5 percent for the quarter.
Those formats, which offer such items as fresh produce, meat, household supplies and beauty products, average about 38,000 square feet. Its supercenters average about 182,000 square feet.
The company expects that earnings for the current quarter will come in between $1.10 a share and $1.20 a share. For the full year, it expects earnings a share to be $5.10 a share and $5.45 a share.
Analysts expected $1.23 a share for the first quarter, and $5.56 a share for the year, according to FactSet estimates.
Walmart's stock fell 90 cents to $73.95 in late-morning trading.