WAL-MART PREDICTS GAINS IN FINANCIAL PERFORMANCE

BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- Wal-Mart Stores here last week said it expects its financial performance to improve in 2005 as fuel prices stabilize and the economy strengthens.the current year will be at the low end of the 3% to 5% range. The early Easter this year should strengthen March comparisons and weaken comparative sales for April, the company said.Food sales at supercenters grew by 18% in the recently

BENTONVILLE, Ark. -- Wal-Mart Stores here last week said it expects its financial performance to improve in 2005 as fuel prices stabilize and the economy strengthens.

the current year will be at the low end of the 3% to 5% range. The early Easter this year should strengthen March comparisons and weaken comparative sales for April, the company said.

Food sales at supercenters grew by 18% in the recently ended fourth quarter, including comparable-store increases of food sales in the "mid-single-digits." Food margins were up more than 60 basis points in the period.

Wal-Mart said its net income for the quarter rose 16.2%, to about $3.16 billion, on a 10.4% increase in revenues, to $83.02 billion, compared with results from the year-ago fourth quarter. For the year, the company posted net income of $10.27 billion, up 13.4%, on sales of $288.19 billion, up about 11%.

"I am pleased with our results, but not satisfied," Lee Scott, president and chief executive officer, said in a prerecorded call discussing the results. He said he expected pressure on margins to ease in the coming year as the economy continues to improve.

Comparable-store sales increased 1.5% for the company overall in the fourth quarter, including 1.4% at the Wal-Mart Stores division -- which includes discount stores, supercenters and Neighborhood Markets -- and 2% at Sam's Club. For the year, comparable-store sales grew 3.3% for the company in total, including 2.9% at Wal-Mart Stores and 5.8% at Sam's Clubs.

Among international operations, the company said its Asda banner in the United Kingdom posted comparable-store food sales in the mid-single-digits for the year, driven by a strong perishables performance.