Wal-Mart Shareholders Gather

Bentonville, Ark.—As shareholders and store employees gather for Wal-Mart’s annual meeting Friday a critical question lurking in the background is just how strongly will the world’s largest retailer reassert its place as the low-price leader?

It’s been a particularly tough year for Wal-Mart. As the economy slowed and gas prices skyrocketed, customers made fewer trips to its stores, sales and profit growth slowed and its grand efforts to move upmarket sputtered. The issue was no longer getting the Target-type customer to cross the aisle from groceries to general merchandise. It was getting acceptable transaction levels from its core consumers in a rapidly maturing domestic store base.

And during it all the company has also had to deal with the particularly salacious case involving former advertising chief Julie Roehm played out in the courts and on the public stage.

Chief Executive Officer Lee Scott began talking about slowing store growth and returning to a more aggressive EveryDay Low Pricing stance late last fall and, indeed, its stores in Northwest Arkansas clearly reflect that direction. Endcaps and drive-aisle pallets and bins scream discernibly lower prices and press the Wal-Mart value message home. The $5,400 diamond rings— n earlier symbol of Wal-Mart’s pursuit of the better-heeled customer—are nowhere to be found.

But the push upmarket has clearly not been abandoned, particularly in home, consumer electronics, and jewelry.

What remains to be seen is how extensive the return to basics and EDLP will be. Scott and senior executives will likely shed more light on that in media briefings today and the shareholders’ meeting tomorrow.