Retailer Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (WMT) on Thursday reported an increase in comparable store sales for the March period, while net sales for the period dropped from the previous year. Looking ahead, the company said it expects earnings per share from continuing operations for the first quarter to be toward the high end of its prior guidance.

Without fuel, comparable store sales for the five-week period ending April 3, 2009 grew 1.4%, compared to a growth of 0.6% in the five-week period ending April 4, 2008.

In Walmart U.S., comparable store sales rose 0.6%, compared to 0.8% growth in the previous year, reflecting the negative impact of the Easter calendar shift. Sam's Club reported comparable store sales increase of 6.2%, in comparison with a decline of 0.5% in the prior year period.

With fuel, comparable store sales rose 0.7% in March, in comparison with an increase of 1.1% last year. For Walmart U.S., comparable store sales rose 0.6%, compared to 0.8% growth in the prior year. Sam's Club's comparable store sales with fuel grew 1.3%, in comparison with 2.3% reported last year.

Net sales for March dropped to $36.206 billion from $36.914 billion reported for the same period last year. Walmart U.S. sales rose to $23.750 billion from $23.155 billion, while International sales dropped to $8.074 billion from $9.472 billion. Sam's Club reported net sales of $4.382 billion for March , up from $4.287 billion in the prior year.

On a constant currency basis, international sales increased 7.8% in the March period. Reported sales in the International segment include a 22.6% impact from currency exchange rates.

The company noted that comparable store traffic for Wal-Mart U.S. increased for a sixth consecutive period. Average ticket was lower, mostly due to the Easter shift and partly due to inflation being at a lower rate than last year in grocery.

Comparable store sales growth for the March period was driven by health and wellness, home, and grocery, the retailer said. Home and do-it-yourself categories had mid-single digit comparable store sales gains during the period.

At Sam's Club, sales during the March five-week period benefited from robust member demand for Sam's value on food and consumables, while the Easter shift favorably impacted comparable sales. Sales were driven by fresh food, dry grocery and consumables.

For the nine-week period, total U.S. comparable store sales were 3.1%, compared to 1.5% last year. With fuel, it was 2.4%, in comparison with 1.9% in the year-ago period.

Net sales for the nine-week period ended April 3 edged up to $66.224 billion from $66.103 billion reported for the nine-week period ended April 4, 2008.

Among others in the industry, Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST) Thursday posted a 5% decline in its March comparable-store sales, hurt by gasoline deflation and foreign exchange. The company is facing tough competition from Sam's Club, which is luring penny-conscious customers. March comparable store sales for the company dropped 2% in the U.S. and 13% overseas.

Costco's net sales for five weeks ended April 5, 2009 fell 3% to $6.39 billion from $6.57 billion reported in the corresponding period of the previous year.

Looking ahead, Wal-Mart expects earnings per share from continuing operations for the first quarter to be toward the high end of the $0.72-$0.77 per share range provided in February.

On average, 19 analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect first-quarter earnings in the range of $0.73-$0.77 with a consensus of $0.76 per share.

The company expects Easter to drive April sales performance. Total U.S. comparable store sales for the 13 weeks through May 1 are expected to be around the high end of the previous forecast of 1%-3%.

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