Walmart sales surging, but a chill may be on the way

NEW YORK — Walmart swung to a loss in the fourth quarter as the sale of its Japan and United Kingdom divisions weighed on its performance.

Sales surged by 7.4% in the period that includes the critical holiday shopping season and sales at stores opened at least a year rose 8.6%, up from 6.4% in the previous quarter.

However, while online sales rose 69%, that was down from the 80% jump in the previous quarter, and it was the slowest growth since the beginning of the pandemic.

And today the company said that it expects overall sales to moderate this year. Shares dipped 5% before the opening bell.

Walmart has pushed hard into fast and convenient delivery during the pandemic and it signaled that will not slowdown. The company said it’s going to invest nearly $14 billion to increase automation and improve its distribution network. It also said Thursday that it’s raising it’s average hourly wage to more than $15 per hour.

“Change in retail accelerated in 2020, “said CEO Doug McMillon. ”The capabilities we’ve built in previous years put us ahead, and we’re going to stay ahead. Our business is strong, and we’re making it even stronger with targeted investments to accelerate growth.”

Walmart Inc. lost $2.09 billion, or 74 cents per share, compared with last year’s $4.14 billion profit during the fourth quarter, or $1.45 per share. Net revenue reached $150.98 billion compared with $140.6 billion in the year ago period.

Adjusted per-share earnings came to $1.39, which was well short of the $1.51 that Wall Street expected, according to a survey by FactSet.

Industry analysts had projected revenue of $148.5 billion.

Walmart, based in Bentonville, Ark., said that COVID-related costs were $1.1 billion in during the latest quarter.

Walmart is on its way to becoming one of the biggest distributors of the COVID-19 vaccine as the U.S. leans more heavily on pharmacies. Walmart operates more than 5,000 pharmacies, of which more than 4,000 are in areas that the government has designated as “medically underserved,” or that have limited pharmacy options.