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sales hitting a wall?

The retail behemoth may have left some investors wondering that after reporting its second-quarter results on Wednesday. For the second quarter in a row, the company reported below-plan sales.

The problem that Wal-Mart faces is its sheer size, said Jay Ferguson, a portfolio manager at Ferguson, Andrews Investment Advisers. With Wal-Mart's sales now accounting for more than 6% of total U.S. retail sales, the company is bound to be affected by larger economic trends, he said.

"Can Wal-Mart's same-store sales grow faster than the economy? Our answer is no," said Ferguson, whose firm has no position in Wal-Mart. "We like the company, but we don't like the

stock price. You can't pay that multiple for a company that grows only with the economy."

To be sure, many retailers would like to have Wal-Mart's problems. In its just-completed quarter, the company posted earnings from continuing operations of $2.4 billion, or 52 cents a share, on revenue of $63.23 billion. The company's earnings per share were up 15.6% from the year-ago period, while revenue jumped 11.4%.

Those results came even though the company, like many other retailers, came into the quarter with higher-than-planned inventory after slow spring sales and had to resort to markdowns to clear shelves.

High Expectations

Wal-Mart's same-store sales, which compare results at similar outlets open for more than one year, grew by 3.2% overall. Comparable-store sales at its core U.S. Wal-Mart stores grew 3.1%, while such sales at its Sam's Club wholesale stores grew by 3.6%.

And the company expects to continue its earnings growth. In the third quarter, Wal-Mart expects to earn between 45 cents to 47 cents a share, up from 41 cents a share last year, on same-store sales growth of 3% to 5%. For the full year, the company now expects earnings to come in at the high end of its previously stated range of $2 to $2.05.

Analysts had projected the company would earn 46 cents a share in the third quarter and $2.04 for the year, according to Thomson First Call.

Wal-Mart's earnings met the company's own projections and Wall Street's estimates. But its sales came in below its own and Wall Street's expectations.

In the just-completed quarter, analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call were expecting Wal-Mart to earn 52 cents a share on $63.4 billion in revenue. Wal-Mart had projected that it would earn 52 cents, but company officials acknowledged during a conference call that its U.S. sales came in "below plan."

"I am happy with our results for the recently completed quarter. However, the way we got there wasn't pretty," said company CEO Lee Scott on the call.

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Scott may be overstating things just a bit. The company did, after all, post same-store sales growth in the middle of its stated 2% to 4% range, which was not a bad performance, given the widespread promotions during the quarter and cool weather in June, which depressed sales at many retailers.

But Wal-Mart has high expectations. In the second quarter last year, for instance, the company's same-store sales grew by 6.4%, including 7.1% comparable-store growth at its namesake division. Meanwhile, the company is currently trading at more than 28 times its projected earnings this year, a fairly heady multiple for any retailer, much less for the biggest one in the world.

Unlike companies such as






or Montgomery Ward that previously were kings of the retail mountain, Wal-Mart's not going to fade away anytime soon, said Ferguson. But the limit on its sales growth means that the company's valuation is just too high right now, he said.

"They always win. It's a question of what you're willing to pay for them," Ferguson said.

Promise in Margins and Overseas

Although the company's U.S. sales are slowing, its international operations are a bright spot. In the quarter, the company's international sales grew 18.8% to $11.5 billion. That was a faster growth rate than in the year-ago quarter, when such sales grew at a 15.9% clip.

Driving the company's international sales were its operations in Mexico, Brazil and the U.K., Wal-Mart officials said. Although Argentina and Germany remain trouble spots, the company has huge growth potential overseas with its expansion into China, Ferguson says. But even with that expansion, the company's U.S. sales continue to dominate Wal-Mart's overall revenue and will do so for the foreseeable future, he said.

Wal-Mart's bottom line grew faster than its top line because it was able to increase its gross profit margin in the quarter. Gross margin represents the difference between what a company charges customers for its products and what it pays suppliers for them. In the quarter, Wal-Mart's gross margin increased by 22 basis points as a percentage of sales, to 22.89%.

Although markdowns kept the company's gross margin in check, the overall improvement was because of sales of higher-margin items at the company's Wal-Mart and Sam's Club divisions, as well as decreases in lost inventory and supplier costs at Sam's.

Even if sales continue to slow, margin remains a huge opportunity for Wal-Mart, Ferguson said. For many manufacturers, Wal-Mart is their biggest customer. As such, the company has the potential to lean on manufacturers to get even better prices than it already does, Ferguson said.

"There's a battle coming when they can't grow the top line. They're going to beat

up the big manufacturers," he said.

While the company was able to limit its top-line costs in the quarter, its operating expenses grew faster than sales. Marketing, general and administrative expenses increased 17 basis points to 17.79% of sales. Company officials blamed the rise on increases in wages, freight costs and insurance expenses.

In recent trading, following the company's report, Wal-Mart's shares were down 38 cents, or 0.7%, to $58.42.