By Stephen Springham, senior retail analyst Planet Retail
After the horror show of Q1, Walmart had so much to prove domestically in Q2. And it has again come up short. A U.S. comp store decline of 0.3% was below earlier management of a 0.2% decline, guidance that was endorsed as recently as the Annual Shareholder Meeting in June. This marks the second quarter that U.S. comps have been both in negative territory and below guidance. Those accusing Walmart of ‘crying wolf’ in its bullishness (ourselves included) may feel vindicated.
“Although ostensibly an improvement on Q1 (when U.S. comps were down 1.4%), Q2 was arguably a weaker performance. Although the U.S. consumer remains challenged, the factors that derailed performance so horribly in Q1 (delays in tax refunds, poor weather and lower inflation in food) have all receded and the operating backdrop in Q2 was far more benign. One telling factor is that the company seems to have woefully underestimated the effect of income tax increases that came into force at the end of 2012, and continue to weigh heavily on Walmart’s core customer demographic.
‘Headline’ growth of 2.9% (or +4.4% at constant currency rates) at the International division also paints a flattering picture of what lies beneath. The top-line growth figure masks a very mixed performance, but trading remains almost universally tough. Mexico, the U.K. and Canada have been previously highlighted as the three key drivers of international profitability, but all three markets are challenged. Trading has been soft in Mexico, the U.K. remains a mature and highly competitive environment, while the arrival of Target in Canada has intensified pressure on a business already struggling to achieve comp growth. There were some positives in Q2, e.g. continued comp growth in China on the back of a prudent location planning strategy. But by and large, the International division failed to provide much comfort.
Predictably, e-commerce was flagged as a bright spot, with year-on-year growth sustained at around the 30% mark. With a more coherent e-commerce strategy taking shape, investments in businesses such as Yihaodian in China are looking increasingly shrewd.