Wal-Mart Stores Inc used its annual meeting on Friday to tout changes to its stores, trumpet its expansion in the US and abroad and emphasize that the world's largest retailer is undergoing changes to sustain its rapid growth rate.
The company's critics urged Wal-Mart to offer higher pay, better health insurance and make other changes for its 1.3 million US workers.
Wal-Mart chief executive officer Lee Scott didn't directly address the union-financed groups. Instead, Scott and other executives discussed Wal-Mart in terms of building on successes, rather than righting wrongs.
The executives drew an enthusiastic response from the 15,000 shareholders and workers packed into Bud Walton Arena on the University of Arkansas campus. The meeting sprinkled panel discussions and speeches between a couple of celebrity appearances.
Scott said that Hurricane Katrina inspired a new vision at Wal-Mart. He noted the company's rapid effort to provide relief supplies -- a move that drew praise from Wal-Mart's critics. Scott said he asked, "How can we use our unique strength to be that company all the time?"
Wal-Mart has several experimental stores, where it is testing new designs and aisles that have merchandise targeted to the local demographics, including an "urban and multicultural" store in the Chicago area.
The company is streamlining its inventory to speed items to shelves and trim the time between manufacture and arrival of items in the stores. And many of those items will increasingly be geared to upscale shoppers, executives said.
Chief financial officer Tom Schoewe said the company can still build sales growth in existing stores while gaining market share in the US and internationally. In the last year, Wal-Mart acquired stores in Brazil, entered into a partnership with a retail chain in Central America and finished its push to gain a majority share of Seiyu Ltd in Japan.
Schoewe also praised workers for helping earnings grow faster than sales in the last fiscal year, when income was up 9.4 percent and earnings were up 11.2 percent.
"The trends here are awesome," he said.
"This is a growth company," Schoewe added.
The company is adding about 600 stores this year, about a third of which will be international, including Canada's first three Supercenters. Wal-Mart has more than 6,500 stores in 15 countries and serves 176 million customers per week.
Schoewe said the company intends to keep expanding its retail footprint by 8 percent annually.
"We haven't wavered at all," Schoewe said, noting the company is adding between 270 and 280 Supercenters in the US this year. Wal-Mart had net sales last fiscal year of US$312.4 billion.
In past annual meetings, the company has addressed critics, and Scott one year warned managers they'd be fired if they exhibited bias in the stores. But this year, Wal-Mart returned to celebrating the company.
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