- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2008

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Wal-Mart officials, bolstered by a rebounding stock price and improved image, told shareholders on Friday that their renewed focus on price and better merchandise is winning over customers who they expect to keep when the sluggish economy improves.

“All of this success feels good, doesn’t it? You bet it does,” H. Lee Scott, Jr., president and chief executive of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. told cheering stockholders packed into a University of Arkansas arena for the company’s annual meeting.

“When the economy turns around, those customers will have no reason to go anywhere else,” said Eduardo Castro-Wright, president and CEO of Wal-Mart’s U.S. division told a group of reporters following the meeting.

Still, Wal-Mart wants to play a larger role in addressing the financial challenges Americans face, store officials said. The retailer is striving for greater environmental sustainability and lower health care costs through its discount drug program for customers.

“We have the best global footprint to serve millions worldwide who will want to lift themselves up into the middle class,” Mr. Scott said. He said the company, which has changed its practices, is in a much better position to work with either presidential candidate to affect change.

“In the months ahead, the candidates are going to pay very close attention to voters who care the most about pocketbook issues. The fact is those are Wal-Mart customers,” Mr. Scott told investors.

He acknowledged to investors that the company, which had been under attack on a variety of issues from labor infractions to lack of environmental awareness, had found itself playing catch up at a time when “people’s expectations of us and of corporations in general changed.”

“We can never let that happen again,” Mr. Scott said. “Not only must we never fall behind … we must always push ourselves to stay ahead.”

Now, looking at an almost 20 percent rise in company stock since last year, shareholders have much to cheer about.

Shares, which had been in the doldrums for several years, are now trading close to the top of the company’s 52-week range after Wal-Mart refined the “save money, live better” campaign, begun last year, as the economy hit the brakes.

Wal-Mart has benefited as Americans, squeezed by higher gasoline and food costs, tighter credit and a slumping housing market, try to shop at cheaper stores. The company, which had been bruised by unrelenting attacks by union-backed groups, has seen criticism diminish.

This year’s annual meeting was more of a celebration than an opportunity to respond to attacks. The four-hour meeting was hosted by Queen Latifah and peppered with performances by such celebrities as American Idol winner David Cook and singer Joss Stone.

Shares fell $1.43, or 2.4 percent, to close at $58.37 as the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 400 points Friday.

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