On Feb. 19, the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), reported sales of $374.5 billion—more than a third of a trillion dollars—for its fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2008. It's a stunning number. But a closer look at Wal-Mart's prospects shows the larger question for the discount giant is whether it can avoid having store-sales growth turn negative in the coming year, for the first time ever.
The numbers the behemoth has reported for its latest fiscal year already reveal evidence of a slowdown. Its Wal-Mart stores division eked out a sales increase of 1% in stores open at least one year, the smallest sales gain in company history. That follows a 1.9% gain in 2006. (Total revenue increased 8.4% for the latest quarter, to $107.4 billion; net income rose 4%, to $4.1 billion, or $1.02 a share.) At this pace, it's obvious Wal-Mart will have to fight flat or negative same-store sales growth in the coming year.