- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — More affluent customers are shopping at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. during the economic slump and a company executive said today that the retailer is in position to keep those shoppers when the economy improves.

Eduardo Castro-Wright, CEO of Wal-Mart’s U.S. division, told a New York gathering of analysts at a Lehman Brothers retail conference that the company’s emphasis on low prices is keeping lower-income customers loyal and attracting more affluent shoppers who usually spend elsewhere.

“It’s up to us with our store experience to capture their (more affluent customers’) imagination and make sure they shop with us when things turn around,” Castro-Wright said.

Shoppers with a household income of more than $55,000 to $70,000 are categorized by Wal-Mart as more affluent than its core customers. Castro-Wright cited company research that showed that the number of more affluent shoppers increased 0.7 percent in February and was up 2.2 percent in March.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has worked to shorten checkout times, which Castro-Wright says have improved by a third, and make stores more attractive and cleaner. Wal-Mart is changing displays to make them brighter and draw even more emphasis to low prices that are shown on ever larger placards.

Castro-Wright said the company surveys between 500,000 and 1 million customers every month and shoppers are saying that “price today matters even more.” He said the weight customers give to price has nearly doubled from a year ago.

“We are very well-positioned because, first of all, we have credibility in price leadership. That’s not something you build overnight,” he said.

Wal-Mart has its own private labels, but Castro-Wright said the company will continue to place greater emphasis on name brands.

He cited a store that opened in March in North Little Rock as a reflection of the new image the company wants to project. The store has faux wood shelves, plenty of warm tones that highlight the bright colors of the products on the shelves, wider aisles and natural light from skylights. The electronics section is airy, with low shelves, a bank of high-definition TVs and has workers trained to help customers make their choices.

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