Wal-Mart Stores Inc is trying to reassure employees and investors that the company's signature U.S. discount business can again achieve the growth that made Wal-Mart the world's number one retailer.

At the same time, the retailer is looking for sales in all the places consumers shop -- online, stores large and small, and international markets like Africa -- since Wal-Mart has suffered two years of declining sales at existing U.S. stores.

Executives say that fixing the U.S. business is taking too long. Walmart U.S. Chief Executive Bill Simon told reporters on Thursday about his impatience with the pace of change at his stores, which have lost bargain-seeking customers to dollar stores.

While we have a long way to go, we're on the right track, Simon said on Friday at the company's annual meeting, which doubles as celebrity-infused pep rally for about 14,000 employees and was hosted this year by Hollywood actor Will Smith.

The company's shares have underperformed the larger market, up 6.3 percent since the 2010 annual meeting, well below the 23.3 percent increase in the Standard & Poor's 500 index <.SPX> over the same period.

Wal-Mart is still recovering from its own missteps over the past several years, including removing some items from its stores and focusing on short-term deals rather than everyday low prices. It has been bringing the items back, first in food and other consumables, and has gone back to emphasizing low prices to more effectively compete with dollar stores.

We're not playing the high, low game and our customers are responding. Simon said.

Friday's employment report is going to make Wal-Mart's job in the United States even more difficult. The U.S. unemployment rate rose to 9.1 percent from 9 percent, versus the drop to 8.9 percent expected by economists.

While business at the smaller international and Sam's Club units has largely hummed along, all eyes are on what Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke and his team are doing to re-energize the company's U.S. discount chain, started nearly 50 years ago.

We recognize we still have work to do, and comp sales growth remains the greatest priority for me and the entire Walmart U.S. team, Duke said in a recorded call when the company reported first-quarter earnings.

Wal-Mart's annual meeting is attended by investors and Wall Street analysts but is largely a staged showcase to energize the company's employees, known as associates.

Associates come from across the United States, Canada, China and several other countries to attend the meeting. They pack hotels and even stay in dormitories at the University of Arkansas.

Chinese associates lined up at the company's home office in nearby Bentonville this week just to take a picture with a wall mural that shows Mr. Sam, the company's founder, Sam Walton.

Also joining the fray this year are some Massmart Holdings Ltd employees, now that Wal-Mart's purchase of a majority stake in the South African chain has been approved.

Massmart Chairman Mark Lamberti and CEO Grant Pattison were introduced to the crowd packed into the Bud Walton arena on the university campus on Friday morning.

While vuvuzelas played from the South Africa part of the crowd, the biggest noise early in the morning came from thousands who cheered when Smith was introduced as the emcee.

Still, the big question on most minds is whether U.S. strategies, including bringing back more merchandise and opening smaller Walmart Express stores, will work.

While Walmart Express has received a lot of attention, that format -- modeled after several smaller stores operated outside the United States -- is not expected to be the major growth engine for Wal-Mart.

Supercenters are still crucial. More than 100 are set to open this year, while just 15 to 20 Walmart Express stores will make their debut in northwest Arkansas, North Carolina and Chicago.

(Reporting by Jessica Wohl; Editing by John Wallace, Dave Zimmerman and Steve Orlofsky)