FAYETTEVILLE, Arkansas - Wal-Mart Stores Inc's annual meeting got under way on Friday amid raucous cheers as the world's largest retailer celebrates the gains it has made expanding its business despite a global economic downturn.
It marks the first annual meeting under newly installed Chief Executive Officer Mike Duke, who took the helm on Feb 1.
Cheerleaders and a marching band kicked off the meeting, and led a 16,000-seat stadium in the company's corporate cheer, while comedian and actor Ben Stiller welcomed the early-morning crowd.
I hear they're still sleeping over at Target, Stiller joked.
The meeting is taking place as Wal-Mart grabs market share amid the economic downturn that has changed the way consumers shop. Instead of splurging on fancy restaurant meals, name-brand clothes, or flashy jewelry, consumers are showing a new austerity and are buying necessities, like food, toiletries and electronics that can be used to entertain at home or keep in touch with friends and family.
That shift in spending patterns has favored Wal-Mart.
Not only are consumers increasingly seeking its low prices, but because of an effort the retailer started in 2006 to improve sales by slowing U.S. expansion, new customers who are coming into its stores are finding wider aisles, less clutter and an improved merchandise selection.
Those are all factors that Wal-Mart believes will help it retain its increased market share once good economic times return.
To manage the recession, Wal-Mart has been planning conservatively. Last year it cut its capital spending plans and said it would pull back on opening U.S. supercenters -- its massive stores that combine a full grocery store with a discount store. Remodels are taking center stage and it is looking at opening smaller stores across the globe.
In October at its analyst meeting, Wal-Mart forecast sales growth of 5 to 7 percent for this current fiscal year -- or what it calls its fiscal year 2010 -- and capital expenditures of $13 billion to $14.5 billion. It also said it expected to open between 125 and 140 U.S. supercenters in this fiscal year. In fiscal year 2008, it opened 191 supercenters and had capital expenditures of $14.9 billion.
During a presentation to the media on Thursday, Wal-Mart also said its strong financial position leaves it well positioned to take advantage of acquisition opportunities across the globe.
We're clearly very actively looking at possibilities, Wan Ling Martello, the chief financial officer of Wal-Mart International, told reporters.
(Reporting by Nicole Maestri, editing by Dave Zimmerman)