Walmart investors eye push into advertising, healthcare following pandemic boom

FILE PHOTO: Shoppers wearing face masks are pictured in the parking of a Walmart Superstore during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Rosemead, California, U.S., June 11, 2020. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo

(Reuters) – Walmart Inc’s investors and analysts are likely to look past the retail giant’s slowest same-store sales growth since the start of the coronavirus crisis, when it reports quarterly results on Thursday and instead focus on the company’s ambitions to diversify beyond retail.

Walmart’s online sales nearly doubled and comparable sales growth touched high single digits each quarter in 2020 as Americans bought groceries and other essentials during the coronavirus pandemic. During that time, the retailer also heavily invested in advertising and health services.

“They are thinking broader picture about their customers, so it’s not so much each transaction, but how do we think more holistically,” said Chad Oviatt, director of investment management at Huntington Private Bank.

Walmart is starting to merge other parts of its business with its main retail and e-commerce business, he added.

The company started to change its media strategy in 2019 by cutting ties with its external advertising partner and taking the business in-house as Walmart Media Group and now renamed Walmart Connect, with annual advertising revenue expected to be nearly $1 billion in 2020.

Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart has also bolstered its presence in healthcare with its own insurance business and an expansion of its healthcare centers in the United States that provide low-priced medical services such as dental care and counseling for customers.

“We are encouraged to see Walmart expand its vision beyond retail and e-commerce, with a focus on building a powerful ecosystem, including advertising, merchant services, health services and digital payments,” Telsey Advisory analyst Joseph Feldman said in a note.

“These new elements of the ecosystem are more profitable than traditional retail and collectively should help strengthen its relationship with customers and generate profitable market share gains,” he said.

Walmart will report fourth-quarter results on Thursday, with analysts expecting same-store sales of 5.80%, according to Refinitiv estimates, the slowest for the year.

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