Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) has hit a bumpy patch.
Two weeks ago, the world’s largest company by revenue disappointed Wall Street with its sales forecast for 2016 and the slowing pace of its e-commerce growth. That came a few months after Wal-Mart warned investors that big investments in giving store workers raises and bolstering its e-commerce would dent its profit in 2016. Last year, Wal-Mart suffered the indignity of seeing its archival Amazon.com (AMZN) surpass it in stock market value. Shares, which closed at $66.34 on Monday, are trading about 21% below a 52-week high.
But behind some of that gloom are some promising signs that have led Barron’s newspaper, an influential publication read by investors, to say Wal-Mart shares could jump 30% in the next two years and trade in the $80 to $90 range, betting that the retailer’s multi-billion dollar investments in human resources and e-commerce will pay off.
There were signs of that during the holiday season: Walmart’s U.S. stores’ efforts to equip stores for online order pickup and shipment, and an overhaul to its mobile app helped fuel an increase in the number of shopper coming into U.S. stores for the fifth straight quarter, signs it is using its physical locations more effectively and offering them something Amazon can. Indeed, half of online orders went through its mobile app, Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon told investors on a recorded call on February 18.
Its expensive investments in giving workers raises are yielding improving customer service scores and Walmart US CEO Greg Foran said on that same call that a higher percentage of stores got a passing grade from him.
Still, Wal-Mart, the parent that also owns Sam’s Club and Walmart’s stores abroad, saw net income fell 10% last year because of the pay raises and tech investments. (Lower gas prices and food prices also pinched the company.)
But Barron’s argues that such investments will reduce turnover, ultimately save Wal-Mart tons of money and offer a better customer experience. (McMillon last year said that Wal-Mart would win via its stores, and also said the retailer would expand its appeal to higher income households.) And the paper also praised the company’s efforts to provide more training, and essentially offer a career path. (Walmart U.S. gave stores much more say in how they run their affairs, loosening the home office’s leash. That includes things like choosing what music a store plays on its public address system.)
Comparable sales at Walmart U.S. for the sixth straight quarter during the holiday period, though very modestly. Still, some on Wall Street see the stock as cheap. “This fiscal year is a transitional year,” Robert Burnstine, president of Fairpointe Capital in Chicago, told Barron’s. “Because of all the investments Wal-Mart is making, it will eventually grow earnings faster, and the market will reward the stock with a higher multiple.” He expects the shares to trade up to $85 to $90 in two years.
Though Wal-Mart’s e-commerce rose only 8% last quarter, Barron’s sees a ton of potential there, namely if the retailer improves the search capabilities on walmart.com, personalized offers and the Walmart Pay app. Walmart U.S. has said that customers who shop both online and in the stores spend an average of $2,500 a year, versus $1,400 for in-store buyers only, meaning that even if Wal-Mart continues to trail Amazon’s growth rates, there is nonetheless a ton of upside. Indeed, two days after Wal-Mart’s earnings report, shares started to rise.