Wal-Mart Hosts Party, Not an Annual Meeting

Wal-Mart lavishly praises itself at annual meeting. CEO Duke announces that earnings last year were up by 6%.
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Updated from 11:46 a.m. EDT

Ben Stiller cracked jokes. Miley Cyrus belted tunes.

American Idol

winner Kris Allen flashed his trademark dimples. No, this wasn't the MTV music awards, it was

Wal-Mart Store's

(WMT) - Get Report

annual meeting -- complete with cheerleaders and a marching band.

A bit flashy for a company that continuously praises itself for attracting shoppers with its value-priced basics? A bit out-of-step with the national mood? Perhaps.

But while the annual meeting may have been over-the-top given the dismal economic environment, the company has good reason to cheer. The big-box retailer has successfully gained market share during the downturn, as full-priced competitors are seeing red ink and are forced to shutter stores.

This marked the first annual meeting under CEO Mike Duke, who took the reins of the company on Feb 1.

Duke announced at the meeting that earnings last year were up 6% to $3.35 a share and that the company returned $7.3 billion to shareholders, through dividends and share repurchases. Wal-Mart ended the year with about $11.6 billion in free cash flow and its worldwide sales for the first time surpassed $400 billion.

The company also announced a $15 billion share repurchase program, to replace its old $15 billion plan, under which $3.4 billion was still remaining.

Wal-Mart has been able to win big in the bust by attracting shoppers who are searching for basic household necessities at value prices. In the first four month of the year the company's share of the total U.S. retail market jumped to 11.36% from 10.54% during the same period last year, according to Customer Growth Partners.

But the answer to the biggest question on investors' minds -- how will the company hold onto new Wal-Mart shoppers once the economy regains some confidence -- wasn't convincing.

Duke, apparently is a mind reader, and said shoppers' value-conscious mindsets are permanent. "I believe the economic crisis has brought a fundamental shift in consumer attitudes and behavior," he said "There is a 'new normal' in which people want to save money and are getting smarter about saving money. They understand and appreciate the value of value.

He also failed to

address some hurdles

, such as plans for the company's flailing Seiyu division.

During the meeting, Wal-Mart drove home its promise that it will integrate more diversity into its workforce and create more opportunities for career advancement. The company has been under pressure by labor-backed critics for years to keep improving its labor practice -- though those criticisms have diminished recently.

But the meeting wasn't about justification, it was about celebration. Wal-Mart said it has made efforts to improve its image and business practices with moves to cut waste from operations and to reduce health care costs through its store clinics.

Including Wal-Mart, the same-store sales index from the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs has averaged a .5% decline from February through April. Without Wal-Mart, the industry index would have fallen by 4% during that period. Starting with May results,

Wal-Mart is no longer reporting monthly sales results

.

Even Stiller, who hosted the fan-fair, made a jab at

Target

(TGT) - Get Report

. "You guys get up early," said Stiller, referring to the 7 a.m start of the meeting. "I hear they are still sleeping over at Target."

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