Wal-Mart pledges to keep customers in a better economy

Wal-Mart Stores' newly installed President and CEO Mike Duke pledged to shareholders Friday that the world's largest retailer will build on its success by keeping its customers even when the economy improves.

But at an annual meeting that was often about celebrating recent business success, the CEO emphasized that the discounter also needs to make even more strides in larger issues of sustainability and health care.

"I believe the economic crisis has brought a fundamental shift in consumer attitudes and behavior," Duke told cheering shareholders packed into a University of Arkansas arena in Fayetteville, about 30 miles from its Bentonville headquarters.

"There is a 'new normal' in which people want to save money and are getting smarter about saving money. ... So let me be clear, and people ask me about this all the time: Our customers will stay with us when this economy turns around," he said.

Wal-Mart wmt has taken customers from competitors and been a bright light in a bleak recession for retailers. The company's challenge now is to make sure new shoppers stay when the economy recovers.

As a testament to recent success, Wal-Mart announced it would launch a $15 billion share buyback. The program replaces a $15 billion program begun in 2007 that $3.4 billion of remaining authorization.

In his address, Duke touched on various issues from increasing career advancement and developing better training for its workers to accelerating its environmental efforts like further reducing waste.

Duke, who had been vice chairman of the company's international business, succeeded Lee Scott, who retired Feb. 1. Scott is continuing as chairman of the executive committee of the board until January 2011.

Chief Financial Officer Tom Schoewe told shareholders that the company was increasing sales and profits faster than its competitors. He noted that Wal-Mart forecast earnings per share for fiscal 2008 of between $3.30 and $3.43.

The company came in at $3.35. Meeting that projection came as the economy went into a nosedive.

"Did we know when we provided guidance that consumer confidence would look like this?" Schoewe said, pointing at a graphic that featured a sharp downward arrow. He said the retail environment became increasingly difficult and that Wal-Mart was pressured internationally by a stronger dollar.

The meeting featured Wal-Mart's customary celebrity appearances. Miley Cyrus, who has a new apparel line with Wal-Mart, performed, as did American Idol winner Kris Allen, who is from Arkansas. Basketball legend Michael Jordan also spoke briefly.

Vice Chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright promised shareholders that the company will press for more diversity in its workforce and create more career opportunities for advancement.

"In the year ahead, we will take bold steps. We will not confuse efforts with results," said Castro-Wright Ark. Without offering specifics, Castro-Wright said that the company will do more to help associates, including hourly associates, advance in the workforce and get competitive pay.

The nation's biggest private employer has long been under pressure by labor-backed critics to keep improving its workplace practices, though criticism has diminished recently.

Castro-Wright says that 40% of regional general managers are "of color"; 20% of that group are women.

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