Walmart sales still strong as pandemic eases, stimulus helps

FILE - In this Nov. 18, 2020 file photo, a woman, wearing a protective face mask due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, wheels a cart with her purchases out of a Walmart store, in Derry, N.H. Walmart Inc. blew past Wall Street projections, reporting strong sales results for the fiscal first quarter as shoppers continued to keep shopping at the discounter even as the pandemic eases.  (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 18, 2020 file photo, a woman, wearing a protective face mask due to the COVID-19 virus outbreak, wheels a cart with her purchases out of a Walmart store, in Derry, N.H. Walmart Inc. blew past Wall Street projections, reporting strong sales results for the fiscal first quarter as shoppers continued to keep shopping at the discounter even as the pandemic eases. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

NEW YORK – Walmart raised its annual earnings forecast on Tuesday after delivering better-than-expected results in the first quarter that showed shoppers, flush with U.S. stimulus payments, splurged on clothing, as well as lawn and garden items.

Sales at stores opened at least a year rose 6%, slowing from the 8.6% increase during the fiscal fourth quarter. But it topped last year's 10% spike when Walmart turned into a pandemic lifeline for millions of people. Online sales rose 37%, down from 69% during the fourth quarter.

“Our optimism is higher than it was at the beginning of the year," said CEO Doug McMillon. “In the U.S., customers clearly want to get out and shop.”

McMillon said government stimulus money boosted sales and there is a lot of pent-up demand as the nation emerges from the pandemic. As people go out more, Walmart said that sales of travel items and teeth whitener are popping as shoppers take their masks off. The company also said that transactions in its stores were up for the first time in a year.

Shares rose nearly 4%, or $5.37, to $144.78 in morning trading.

Walmart has pushed further into fast and convenient delivery over the past year and sales at its stores were elevated with so many other retailers forced to close during lockdowns. Even the massive infrastructure put into place by Walmart in recent years was strained by the crush of orders from millions of people sheltering at home.

It bumped up spending by $14 billion to speed up its distribution network, and in February said it would raise its average hourly wage to more than $15 per hour, a $1 increase. Amazon and Target have already increased hourly wages to $15 for all workers.

First-quarter net income was $2.73 billion, or 97 cents per share, in the three-month period ended April 30. That compares with $3.99 billion, or $1.40 per share, in the year-ago quarter. Adjusted earnings was $1.69 per share. Analysts were expecting $1.21 per share, according to FactSet.

Sales rose 2.6% to $137.16 billon. Analysts were expecting $132.16 billion.

Walmart said that it now expects earnings to increase in the high single digits; previously, the company had projected a slight decline in profit for the year.

Walmart is still faced with plenty of challenges. Analysts believe that sign-ups for Walmart Plus, a membership program costing shoppers $98 annually, or $12.95 per month, are slowing. The retailer is hoping it will be a big competitor to Amazon’s juggernaut Prime free shipping program, launched 15 years ago. Walmart Plus gives members same-day delivery on 160,000 items, a fuel discount at certain gas stations and a chance to check out at Walmart stores without having to wait at a register.

McMillon told analysts during the earnings call on Tuesday that what's driving the selling memberships is the grocery supercenter pickup and delivery, and capacity is an issue. He said right now the focus is on the quality of that experience, not the quantity.

On Friday, Walmart Inc. said it will no longer require vaccinated shoppers or workers to wear a mask in its U.S. stores unless state or local laws say otherwise. It's offering workers a $75 bonus if they are vaccinated.

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