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Wal-Mart CEO pledges to keep customers gained during recession


New York City Wal-Mart Stores’ president and CEO Mike Duke pledged at the company’s annual shareholders meeting Friday that the chain will build on its success by keeping the new customers it has attracted during the recession even when the economy improves.

“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," Duke told the thousands of cheering attendees packed into the Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, about 30 miles from the chain’s Bentonville headquarters.

Duke, who took the reins as chief executive from Lee Scott on Feb.1, said there is a “new normal” in which people want to save money, and are getting smarter about saving money.

"I believe the economic crisis has brought a fundamental shift in consumer attitudes and behavior," he said.

Duke highlighted Wal-Mart’s success in the past fiscal year with earnings up 6% to $3.35 per share, $7.3 billion returned to shareholders through dividends and share repurchases, and worldwide sales surpassing $400 billion for the first time. He said that the strength of the company’s first-quarter performance was very good relative to competitors.

“This is not a time to slow down,” Duke said. “This is not a time to take comfort in our success. This is Wal-Mart’s time to look to the future and seize the opportunity to truly lead around the world. We must broaden and accelerate what we’re already doing well. And where we can do better, we will innovate.”

The mood at the meeting was upbeat and celebratory. And with good reason: The recession has expanded Wal-Mart’s appeal. According to sales tracker Thomson Reuters, Wal-Mart's same-store sales have risen 3.4% so far this year. By contrast, there has been an average 4.6% decline in the firm's same-store sales index for 30 large retail chains, including Target and J.C. Penney.

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

"In the year ahead, we will take bold steps. We will not confuse efforts with results," Castro-Wright said. 

Although he did not offer specifics, Castro-Wright said that the company will do more to help its associates, including hourly employees, advance in the work force and get competitive pay.

In keeping with Wal-Mart tradition, the meeting was a lavish production, and featured a mix of celebrity appearances. Teen sensation Miley Cyrus, who has a new apparel line that will be sold exclusively at Wal-Mart, performed, as did American Idol winner Kris Allen, who is from Arkansas. Motown legend Smokey Robinson and Latin star Paulina Rubio also performed, and basketball legend Michael Jordan spoke briefly. The meeting was hosted by actor/comedian Ben Stiller.

Stiller joked that he had bunked the previous night with six Chileans, in a reference to Wal-Mart's latest international acquisition, Distribucion y Servicio SA. The Chilean company flew in hundreds of enthusiastic flag-waving employees for the meeting.

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