Shares in Walmart Inc. jumped Thursday morning after the nation's largest retailer exceeded quarterly same-store sales estimates and saw online sales continue to climb.
Comparable sales for Walmart stores in the United States climbed 3.4% in the first quarter, the company's best increase for the period in nine years. Sales of groceries—Walmart’s biggest business—fueled the increase, and a later-than-usual U.S. flu season boosted sales of health and wellness products. Shares rose nearly 4 percent Thursday, the biggest intraday gain in almost three months.
“This is a very good set of results,” Neil Saunders, an analyst at GlobalData Retail, said in a report. “The U.S. operation remains the star of the show.”
Web sales in the U.S. increased 37%, slightly ahead of the company’s expected growth rate for the full year. Walmart and rival Amazon.com Inc. are locked in a fierce battle for internet shoppers, and both have recently pledged to speed up delivery times. While Amazon has the overall lead in e-commerce, raking in about 50 cents of every dollar spent, Walmart has the best-developed web grocery business, with 2,450 stores offering curbside order pickup.
Walmart’s online growth has come at a cost to profitability, though. Gross margins of 24.3% were in line with analysts’ estimates but did mark a slight year-on-year contraction. That can be attributed to higher labor costs, plus online sales that typically deliver lower margins than in-store sales. Transportation expenses, meanwhile, have eased somewhat this year, the company said.
On the down side, Sam’s Club’s same-store sales fell short of estimates, dragged down by reduced tobacco sales.
Walmart’s response to potential higher levies on Chinese imports will likely set the tone for other discount retailers, and its decisions on whether to pass along or absorb the additional costs will have ripple effects on American consumers. In its favor, Walmart’s clout with suppliers gives it more room to maneuver, and much of its food comes from U.S. sources, easing the impact.
“We will do everything we can to keep prices low but increased tariffs lead to increased prices,” Chief Financial Officer Brett Biggs said in a Thursday morning interview. “It’s very item- and category-specific. There are some places where as we get tariffs, we will take prices up.” Shifting its sourcing, or finding more manufacturers outside of China, “is one of a number of actions that our merchants are considering.”
Tariffs, according to Evercore ISI analyst Greg Melich, are “the next key swing factor,” as they could “wipe out” earnings growth across the sector this year.
It’s not a Walmart-specific issue: Macy’s Inc. said Wednesday that the latest tariffs, if implemented, would likely be reflected in its prices. Ralph Lauren Corp. also said after reporting results this week that consumer price-hikes could be an end result, though it’s first trying to work with Chinese suppliers to drive down costs and further diversify its supply chain out of China.
“It is hard to do the math to find a path that gets you to a place where you don’t have a customer impact,” Macy’s CEO Jeff Gennette said on an earnings call Wednesday, describing the impact of the U.S.-China trade negotiations as a “stay tuned” situation.