Wal-Mart plans for 20 years of growth

Fayetteville, Ark. Wal-Mart Stores' CEO Mike Duke told shareholders at its annual meeting Friday that the company is positioning itself for 20 years of worldwide growth and that it plans to hire a half-million employees over the next five years. The discounter also unveiled a new $15 billion stock buyback.

Wal-Mart also acknowledged the current economic volatility.

“There is business opportunity in the world, but the world is changing fast in big, disruptive, complex ways," Duke said.

Wal-Mart has been feeling the heat of competition and slowing sales lately, as some of its better-off customers head back to Target and the mall, and more cash-strapped shoppers search out extreme-value stores such as Family Dollar for even better deals. Duke said he is "optimistic" about the business and plans to continue to widen the discounter's price gap to stay ahead of rivals.

Duke noted that the U.S. division needs to improve same-store sales and Sam’s Club needs to continue to drive product quality and even greater membership growth. The international division will be called upon to further improve returns and accelerate growth.

Duke emphasized the role that technology will play in the company's growth strategy. He said the chain will closely study mobile technology, including its potential in developing countries, with the aim of making it possible for consumers to buy what they want, how they want, and where they want a product.

"Building the best Web site is just as important as getting our store format right," Duke said.

On another front, Duke said Wal-Mart will remain focused on holding the rate of increase in expenses.

In a Q&A with reporters after the meeting, vice chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright said stores in areas with high unemployment have the worst numbers while stores in low unemployment areas are thriving, the Associated Press reported.

Duke told reporters that the chain will grow by adding both large-format stores and smaller ones, both in the United States and abroad. The smaller stores will not be limited to urban markets, Duke said, but could also serve as a destination for shoppers making "fill-in" trips for basics.

The meeting was a celebrity-laden extravaganza, hosted by entertainer Jamie Foxx and featuring performances by artists from Mariah Carey to Josh Groban.

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