Walmart wins with a back-to-basics approach

Wed Feb 15, 2012 6:04pm EST
 
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By Jessica Wohl

(Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc's WMT.N turnaround appears to be gaining traction as simple strategies like undercutting competitors by a penny on a gallon of milk are helping to restore its image as the go-to retailer for budget-conscious Americans.

When the world's largest retailer reports fiscal fourth-quarter results on February 21, analysts on average expect to see the company's best U.S. sales performance in more than two years.

They even say the company may have put an end to six quarters of declines in the number of visits to Walmart stores in the United States.

Traffic is a key benchmark in a turnaround that has taken more than 18 months under U.S. chief Bill Simon, who was appointed after a failed experiment to attract more affluent shoppers with a less cluttered store featuring short-term sales.

An increase in traffic would be a sign that a nascent rebound - first seen in the third quarter when Walmart U.S. posted an increase in sales at stores open at least a year - is sustainable. That increase was the first in more than two years.

"If you get that right then everything else kind of falls into place," said Natalie Berg, director of global research at Planet Retail, referring to traffic.

If investors are convinced of a U.S. turnaround, Wal-Mart shares could power higher than the current $62, which is already up 24 percent since mid-August, analysts said.

Wal-Mart shares are a "compelling investment" and could rise to at least $82, said Robert Straus, portfolio manager at ICON Advisers in Greenwood Village, Colorado. As of December 30, Wal-Mart was the fourth-largest holding in the firm's ICON Consumer Staples fund, with 42,800 shares.   Continued...