Analyzing Walmart Inc.'s (WMT) Progress in a Post-Pandemic Era and Amid Shifting Economic Dynamics

In our posts on May 25 and June 14, when we discussed how inflationary pressures and online retail is altering brick-and-mortar stores in today’s economy and resulting in widespread store closures, we found budget retailers, such as Walmart Inc. (WMT)to be relatively immune to the seismic shifts in the consumption ecosystem.

However, on May 18, it was disclosed that the big box retailer would be closing 21 stores in 12 states and DC this year , with four stores in Chicago being the latest to join the list owing to poor financial performance being cited by the company.

These closures would extend the trend of WMT closing a handful of stores across various states each year, with the company saying that the stores are "underperforming" without specifics.

Such developments could understandably dampen investor sentiments and confidence and even trigger panic regarding the retailer's financial health. However, counterintuitively, in its earnings release for the first quarter of the fiscal year 2024, the big-box retailer surpassed expectations for both earnings and revenue, with sales rising by nearly 8%.

Encouraged by the strong performance, WMT also raised its full-year guidance. It anticipates consolidated net sales to rise about 3.5% in the fiscal year. It expects adjusted earnings per share for the full year will be between $6.10 and $6.20.
However, it does not mean that the retailing giant has been completely immune to the bite of inflation. In fact, like a double-edged sword, it has cut both ways.

As we have discussed in a previous article, on the one hand, WMT has attracted new and more frequent shoppers, including younger and wealthier customers, who are turning to Walmart for both convenience and value.

However, on the other hand, as inflation factors into Americans’ spending decisions, the shift back to services is taking a bite out of sales of goods, particularly after a pandemic-fueled spending boom.

Moreover, spending trends weakened as the quarter continued, with the sharpest drop after February. Chief Financial Officer John David Rainey attributed that, in part, to the end of pandemic-related emergency funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and a decline in tax refund amounts.

Consequently, consumers have been buying fewer discretionary items, such as electronics and home appliances, and trading for lower-priced items. WMT’s sales have also reflected the shift toward groceries and essentials, with the former accounting for nearly 60% of the annual U.S. sales for the nation’s largest grocer.

In fact, WMT’s grocery business helped to offset weaker sales of clothing and electronics, as sales of general merchandise in the U.S. declined mid-single-digits, while sales of food and consumables increased low double-digits.

Another bright spot for the retail giant has been growth in online sales, which jumped 27% and 19% year-over-year for Walmart U.S. and Sam’s Club, respectively. According to Rainey, curbside pickup and home delivery of online purchases fueled the growth.
However, the increase in volumes online and overall came at the cost of a year-over-year decline in the company’s first-quarter gross margin rate since food has slimmer margins than other merchandise.

In order to protect and preferably increase its margins, WMT has been doubling down on initiatives to increase the efficiency of its operations.
As digital transactions now constitute about 13% and growing of its total annual sales in the U.S., WMT is cutting costs by reducing packaging.
On June 1, in its push for greater sustainability and lesser waste generation, the company introduced new packaging by using paper mailers and technology that makes custom-fit cardboard boxes.

WMT will add made-to-fit technology in about half of its fulfillment centers and for customers at all of its stores by the end of the year. Moreover, the nation’s largest retailer will also allow customers to skip plastic bags when retrieving curbside pickup orders.

While, at scale, the company’s switch to paper mailers is expected to eliminate more than 2,000 tons of plastic from circulation in the U.S. by the end of January, the sustainability push can come with cost benefits.

For example, with made-to-fit packaging, each box requires less material and plastic air pillows that cushion an item— making truckloads more efficient. The box changes also reduce labor for workers who previously made and taped the containers by hand. As a result, the company can realize significant savings in energy and workforce costs.

In its push for greater efficiency, WMT has also been leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) by deploying them to improve both the customer and employee experience by figuring out what the customer wants and how best to get it.

For instance, one autonomous floor scrubber travels around in each store, keeping floors clean and free of debris while capturing, in real-time, images of more than 20 million photos of everything on the shelves daily with inventory intelligence towers.

WMT has trained its algorithms to discern the different brands and their inventory positions, taking into account how much light there is or how deep the shelf is, with more than 95% accuracy. Therefore, when a product gets to a pre-determined level, the stock room is automatically alerted so that the item is always available.

According to Anshu Bhardwaj, senior vice president of tech strategy and commercialization at WMT, employee productivity has increased by 15% since deploying this AI last year.

Moreover, for years, WMT has also been leveraging the vast amount of data generated by its ever-increasing online traffic to optimize its shopping app with the help of AI.

Given the optimization levels the retail giant is achieving in its internal processes through the proactive deployment of technology, it’s unsurprising that it is laying off hundreds of employees at e-commerce facilities nationwide.

WMT has confirmed eliminating hundreds of jobs at five fulfillment centers in Pedricktown, New Jersey; Fort Worth, Texas; Chino, California; Davenport, Florida; and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.


In order to immunize itself from the risk of getting disrupted, the country’s largest retailer has embraced what Joseph Schumpeter has aptly described as creative destruction.

While it could mean continual realignment for its workforce, WMT shows promise as an investable and future-ready business.

Is AI Fueling the Next Tech Bubble? 5 Stocks to Watch

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an umbrella term that denotes a series of programs and algorithms designed to mimic human intelligence and perform cognitive tasks efficiently with little to no human intervention. Reinforcement through Machine Learning (ML) changes the game by enabling the models and algorithms to keep evolving based on outcomes.

Unlike other next-big things, such as nuclear fusion, quantum computing, and flying cars, which are practically (and literally) pies in the sky, AI has been around for quite some time, influencing how we shop, drive, date, entertain ourselves, manage our finances, take care of our health, and much more.
However, the technology came into the limelight late last year with the release of ChatGPT, which in its own description, is “an AI-powered chatbot developed by OpenAI, based on the GPT (Generative Pretrained Transformer) language model. It uses deep learning techniques to generate human-like responses to text inputs in a conversational manner.”

The Euphoria

The easily accessible chatbot, believed to be capable of eventually disrupting how humans interact with computers and changing how information is retrieved, took the world by storm by signing up 1 million users in five days and amassing 100 million monthly active users only two months into its launch. To put this in context, TikTok, the erstwhile fastest-growing app, took nine months to reach 100 million users.

ChatGPT is one of the several use cases of generative AI, the subset of algorithms that creates and returns content, such as human-like text, images, and videos, on the basis of written instructions (prompts) provided by the user.

Including this subset, AI in its various forms and applications is capable of analyzing large volumes of data generated during the entire course of our increasingly digital existence and identifying trends and exceptions to help us develop better insights and make more effective decisions.
Given its massive importance, it’s hardly surprising that Zion Market Research forecasts the global AI industry to grow to $422.37 billion by 2028. Hence, this field has understandably garnered massive attention from investors who are reluctant to miss the bus on such a watershed development in the history of humankind.

Although OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT, is not a publicly listed company, Microsoft Corporation (MSFT) has bet big on the company with a multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment deal. CEO Satya Nadella discussed, at the World Economic Forum held in Davos this year, how the underlying technology would eventually be ubiquitous across MSFT’s products. The process has already begun with updates to its Bing search engine.

MSFT’s rival, Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL), is in hot pursuit. With AI-enabled technology ubiquitous across its platforms, the company has unveiled its response to ChatGPT, called BardAI, with which the company is eager to reclaim its reputation as an early bird in the domain of conversational AI.

Chinese tech giant Baidu, Inc. (BIDU) has also followed suit with Ernie Bot., Inc. (AMZN) and Meta Platforms, Inc. (META) are also among the notable players in this dynamic domain.

However, more recently, the company which made headlines when its stock got its moonshot due to the widespread public interest in AI is NVIDIA Corporation (NVDA). Post its earnings release on May 24, the Santa Clara-based graphics chip maker has stolen the thunder by becoming the first semiconductor company to hit, albeit briefly, a valuation of $1 trillion.

NVDA’s A100 chips, which are powering LLMs like ChatGPT, have become indispensable for Silicon Valley tech giants. To put things into context, the supercomputer behind OpenAI’s ChatGPT needed 10,000 of Nvidia’s famous chips. With each chip costing $10,000, a single algorithm that’s fast becoming ubiquitous is powered by semiconductors worth $100 million.

The Catch

Notwithstanding all the transformative qualities of AI, investors, who poured a record $8.5 billion of cash into tech funds last week, would be wise to be aware of the limitations and loopholes of investing in technology before FOMO drives them to inflate a "baby bubble" growing in plain sight.

While the technology is powerful (and useful, unlike most cryptocurrencies), the adoption is fast becoming so widespread that it remains unclear how it could help a specific business differentiate itself by developing enduring competitive advantages (read moats) and generating consistent profitability.
Moreover, LLM-based generative AI chatbots such as ChatGPT and BardAI are simply auto-complete on steroids that have been trained on a vast amount of data. While they are really good (and continually getting better) at predicting what the next word is going to be and extrapolating it to generate extensive literature, it lacks contextual understanding.

Consequently, the algorithms struggle with nuances such as sarcasm, irony, satire, analogies, etc. This also leads to the propensity to “hallucinate” and generate responses even if those are factually and logically incorrect.

Additionally, with the widespread adoption of LLMs and other forms of generative AI, a massive amount of content will be ingested and regurgitated as canned responses echoed in infinite permutations and combinations. This oversupply could dilute the value and increase demand for qualitatively superior insight and discernment, which (still) requires human intervention.

(Relatively) Safe Havens

Just as we have learned during the dot-com, cryptocurrency, real estate, and numerous other bubbles through the ages, markets can stay irrational longer than investors can stay solvent.

Therefore, even if the next big thing comes along and changes the world (and electricity, automobiles, personal computers, and the Internet really did), it’s the fundamentals that determine whether a business can survive to capitalize on those windfalls.

Hence, it could be wise and safe for investors to stick to big tech mega caps (mentioned earlier in the article), which are involved in providing the infrastructure and computing horsepower required to make the data and power-hungry AI algorithms work.

Moreover, since AI is well-embedded into their business operations and market offerings and AI as a service is (still) a small portion of their revenue, concentration risks can be more easily managed.

Bottom Line

Rather than getting too carried away and stretching a worthwhile and useful innovation to frothy excesses with unrealistic expectations, it could be useful to remember that legendary investor and polymath Charlie Munger doesn’t think that AI is the silver bullet that can solve mankind’s pressing problems all by itself.

Even AAPL co-founder Steve Wozniak, who knows more than a thing or two about technology, agrees with the ‘A’ and not the ‘I’ of Artificial Intelligence.
We hope this discourse will help investors cultivate discernment, discretion, and, if necessary, dissent while investing in this revolutionary technology since those are the ultimate indicators of intelligence.