FAYETTEVILLE, Arkansas (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc announced a new $15 billion share repurchase plan at its annual meeting on Friday, as shareholders look for greater returns from the world’s largest retailer.
The new program comes after the company repurchased about $10 billion in shares over the past year, Chief Financial Officer Tom Schoewe said during the company’s annual shareholder meeting/company pep rally at the University of Arkansas basketball arena.
Earlier this year, Wal-Mart raised its annual dividend by 11 percent.
Even though the company’s U.S. sales have been sluggish amid high unemployment and gasoline prices, it has still generated strong cash flow, reaching about $14 billion in its latest fiscal year. Strong international sales and a focus on reining in expenses have helped.
Among the 16,000 people gathered on Friday at the arena were shareholders hoping for more cash and employees looking for big-name entertainment and pep-rally motivation.
They got both. The meeting was hosted by Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx and featured musical performances by the likes of Mary J Blige, Enrique Iglesias and Mariah Carey.
Foxx started with a song that celebrated Walmart’s price rollbacks and then went into an impersonation of American musician Ray Charles, whom Foxx played in a biopic.
In a video that introduced Foxx, he looked for his movies in a Walmart video section, while in the cosmetics department, he pointed to makeup ads that featured female co-stars he has kissed on the screen.
“Sometimes I just come to Walmart in the makeup section to hang out with my girlfriends,” he said.
But shareholders want to hear how the company will work through sluggish sales in the United States, where sales at its discount stores open at least a year have fallen for the last four quarters, analysts said.
The company has said that high unemployment and rising gasoline prices have pressured sales in the United States.
“We get up every single day and look at the newspaper and what do we see, one set of bad news after another,” Schoewe said.
The latest snapshot of the U.S. jobs market was disappointing, with the government saying on Friday that the private sector hired fewer people than expected in May.
Walmart has announced thousands of price “rollbacks” to attract customers who remain on very tight budgets. It has aggressively cut costs to help fund the rollbacks and increase earnings. Overseas sales have also helped lift results.
While low prices resonate with some customers, those who feel more secure in their jobs have started to shift to rival Target Corp and some department stores to buy more discretionary items like clothing and home furnishings.
At the other end of the spectrum, Walmart faces increasing pressure from dollar stores, which have added food offerings in order to attract customers.
Shares of Wal-Mart were down 63 cents or 1.2 percent to $51.10 Friday on the New York Stock Exchange.
Reporting by Brad Dorfman; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Gerald E. McCormick