By Jessica Wohl
REUTERS - Wal-Mart Stores Inc shares hit an all-time high on Wednesday, as the world's largest retailer said it is seeing growth in both large and small U.S. stores and has had a strong start to layaway sales ahead of the holiday season.
Walmart U.S. has lined up $400 million in U.S. layaway sales in less than a month, half of the amount shoppers put on hold for all of the 2011 holiday season, as the chain makes a concerted push to entice shoppers before the typical start of the holiday season.
Shares of Wal-Mart reached as high as $76.66 on Wednesday as the company held its annual meeting with analysts and investors, which was also broadcast over the Internet.
In the year since the last investor meeting, Wal-Mart's U.S. arm, by far its largest business, has rebounded from a prolonged slump. At the same time, its international operations have come under scrutiny following a New York Times article in April about alleged bribery at its Mexican unit.
Investors have shrugged off the bribery probe, which has already cost Wal-Mart tens of millions of dollars as it continues to take a closer look at operations around the globe. Shares of Wal-Mart are up 22 percent since just before the New York times story was published, compared with a 3 percent increase in the Dow Jones industrial average, of which they are a component.
PLACING BIG ORDERS FOR HOLIDAY SEASON
Walmart U.S. is preparing for a strong holiday season, ordering twice as many Apple Inc iPads and other tablet computers as last year, said Duncan MacNaughton, the chief merchandising and marketing officer at Walmart U.S.
The company has seen roughly $400 million in layaway orders already, after starting the process in mid-September, a month earlier than it did when it brought the service back in 2011. With layaway, shoppers buying certain items can put them on hold and pay for them over time.
Walmart U.S. has now posted four consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth after nine straight quarterly declines, though the pace of growth slowed to 2.2 percent in the second quarter from 2.6 percent in the first quarter. The pace of quarterly same-store sales growth trails competitors such as Target Corp and Dollar General Corp.
Plans for Walmart U.S. this holiday season include offering sale prices on certain toys on Tuesdays based on weekend feedback from social media followers and using 100 "Twitter elves" to help with marketing and customer service on the popular microblogging site. At the Sam's Club warehouse chain, holiday season plans include selling Children's Place merchandise in its stores, said Sam's Club CEO Rosalind Brewer.
Wal-Mart is gaining market share nearly everywhere it runs stores and still sees its international business as a growth engine despite its decision to slow down store openings in some key countries, said Chief Executive Mike Duke.
Duke also said he believes the company is "playing to win in a very real way now" in e-commerce. He said he is pleased with Wal-Mart's progress in online search and other areas.
Wal-Mart still plans to open more stores around the world, but as it said earlier this year, it will slow down store openings in Brazil, China and Mexico. In Brazil and China, Wal-Mart has said it wants to work on making improvements in its hundreds of stores. Meanwhile, the store approval process in Mexico, where its local affiliate has more than 2,000 locations, has slowed and become more complex following allegations that the company had bribed government officials to speed up approvals.
(Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Matthew Lewis and Tim Dobbyn)