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 that has roiled competitors.

We have outperformed the competition again and again, every single month for five consecutive quarters now. We have reported better comparable sales growth than the market, Eduardo Castro-Wright, vice chairman in charge of the retailer's U.S. operations, told a cheering crowd.

Winning feels good, doesn't it?

The gathering marks the first annual meeting under newly installed Chief Executive Officer Mike Duke, who took the helm on Feb 1. He is scheduled to address the 16,000-seat stadium, packed with employees from across the globe, later in the meeting.

Wal-Mart has been grabbing market share as the economic downturn changes the way consumers shop. Instead of splurging on name-brand clothes or jewelry, consumers are sticking to buying necessities, like food, medicine or electronics that can be used to entertain at home or keep in touch with friends.

Wal-Mart is attracting new consumers who are seeking out its low prices. But once at a Wal-Mart, shoppers are finding renovated stores with wider aisles, less clutter and an improved merchandise selection -- factors Wal-Mart believes will help it retain its market share once good economic times return.

Wal-Mart shares, which rose 18 percent last year as investors sought a safe haven from the financial crisis, have fallen about 10 percent this year. The Dow Jones Industrial Average <.DJI> is roughly flat this year.


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.

Castro-Wright said the retailer has developed a new diversity strategy that will help it put more women and minorities into leadership positions within the company.

That diverse leadership makes our business stronger, he said. Growth happens not when everyone at the table thinks the same way.

Wal-Mart shares declined 43 cents to $50.44 in recent morning trading.

(Reporting by Nicole Maestri, editing by Dave Zimmerman)