Higher customer traffic boosts Wal-Mart's sales

By By Nandita Bose Markets Reuters

Wal-Mart Stores Inc on Tuesday reported higher-than-expected U.S. sales, helped by more customer visits to stores and accelerating online activity, and the world's largest retailer's shares rose more than 3 percent.

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Wal-Mart said sales at U.S. stores open at least a year rose 1.8 percent, excluding fuel price fluctuations, during the fourth quarter ended on Jan. 31. Analysts on average were expecting an increase of 1.3 percent, according to research firm Consensus Metrix.

Chief Financial Officer Brett Biggs said comparable sales were up at all store formats due to a steady improvement in stores, strong growth from e-commerce and a growing contribution from the online grocery business.

"We've now seen nine consecutive quarters of traffic growth in our stores," Biggs said in a statement. "Clearly, we're gaining traction."

U.S. store visits rose 1.4 percent, compared with a year-earlier increase of 0.7 percent.

Despite lower food prices, Biggs said comparable sales rose in Wal-Mart's grocery business, which accounts for nearly 53 percent of overall revenue.

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Net income attributable to Wal-Mart fell to $3.76 billion in the fourth quarter ended Jan. 31 from $4.57 billion a year earlier, reflecting the impact from discontinued real estate projects and severance.

Excluding items, earnings per share of $1.30 exceeded the analysts' average estimate of $1.29, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Wal-Mart said it expected earnings per share of 90 cents to $1 in the current quarter and $4.20 to $4.40 for this fiscal year. Analysts' estimates were within both ranges.

Fourth-quarter revenue rose 1 percent to $130.9 billion. Excluding currency fluctuations, it stood at $133.6 billion.

Online sales increased 29 percent, accelerating from the previous quarter. That business added 80 basis points to fourth-quarter comparable sales.

Wal-Mart announced a 2 percent dividend increase to $2.04 a share annually.

Shares of Wal-Mart were up 3.2 percent at $71.60 in premkaret trading. At Friday's close, they had risen 0.4 percent since the start of the year.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Chicago Editing by W Simon and Lisa Von Ahn)