CHICAGO (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc's U.S. same-store sales have fallen for two straight years, as customers struggle with high unemployment and wages that are not keeping up with rising prices for food and other basics.
The world's largest retailer's breadth offset the impact of the U.S. slump, as strong sales at its warehouse clubs and international stores, cost-cutting and share repurchases helped it post a better-than-expected 3.8 percent rise in profit.
"The risk/reward ratio on Wal-Mart stock is constantly improving, despite the painful U.S. experience over the last two years, " said Gilford Securities analyst Bernard Sosnick.
Wal-Mart's shares, up about 4 percent since the beginning of the year, skidded 1.1 percent to $55.49 on Tuesday.
Wal-Mart is steadfast about fixing its sales at U.S. stores open at least a year. It is widening its assortment of goods and emphasizing low prices to woo back customers who chose to shop elsewhere, including grocery and dollar stores.
"We do think we're getting traction," Chief Financial Officer Charles Holley said. "But it's a work in progress."
Now, after seeing increased same-store sales of groceries and health and wellness items for two consecutive quarters, Wal-Mart must figure out how to get shoppers to buy more clothing and other items from the rest of the store.
Its core U.S. shoppers are still on a budget and have concerns about rising gas, energy and food prices, as well as employment issues. At the same time, small business owners who shop at its Sam's Club warehouse stores remain concerned about the economy and their access to credit.
U.S. same-store sales fell 1.1 percent, in line with the company's forecast of a drop of 2 percent to flat, and slightly better than the average 1.3 percent decline expected by analysts according to Thomson Reuters.
"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," Wal-Mart Chief Executive Officer Mike Duke said in a recorded call.
PAYCHECK CYCLE PERSISTS
Wal-Mart continues to see a paycheck cycle, where people stock up around payday and then as the money runs out, spend less as the month progresses.
"If they have $20 left, that's all they have and that's all they can spend," Holley said.
Most of the decline in first-quarter U.S. same-store sales came from a drop in store traffic, while the average shopper spent more.
Weather also hurt sales of outdoor items. Wal-Mart is not alone feeling pressure from major snowstorms and floods. Home Depot Inc and Lowes Cos Inc experienced weak spring demand.
Wal-Mart earned $3.4 billion, or 98 cents per share, in the first quarter that ended on April 30, up from $3.3 billion, or 87 cents per share, a year earlier.
Sales rose 4.4 percent to $103.42 billion.
Analysts forecast earnings of 95 cents per share on $102.93 billion in sales, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
International sales soared 11.5 percent, with strong gains in all countries except Japan. At Asda, its British arm, sales growth was much slower than a year earlier.
Wal-Mart forecast second-quarter earnings of $1.05 to $1.10 per share, up from 97 cents a year earlier. It expects U.S. same-store sales to be down 1 percent to up 1 percent.
The company did not update its fiscal year earnings per share forecast of $4.35 to $4.50.
Analysts currently expect Wal-Mart to earn $1.08 this quarter and $4.44 this year.
(Reporting by Jessica Wohl; Editing by Dave Zimmerman and Maureen Bavdek)
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