Wal-Mart Black Friday: 5,000 items a second sold

Did the strikes threatened by frustrated employees make a difference? Perhaps over the long run.

By Jonathan Berr Nov 23, 2012 1:08PM
Wal-Mart store in Secaucus, New Jersey / Jin Lee/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesWal-Mart (WMT) started off the 2012 holiday season on the right foot, selling an astounding 5,000 items per second at the peak of its Black Friday events (which actually began Thursday night). The negative publicity generated by a union-backed protest did little to suppress shoppers' moods.

In fact, the world's largest retailer is claiming that the strike was a bust.

"We estimate that less than 50 associates participated in the protest nationwide," said Wal-Mart U.S. head Bill Simon in a press release. "In fact, this year, roughly the same number of associates missed their scheduled shift as last year."

The protests were mostly peaceful, according to news reports from around the country. A union-backed group of Wal-Mart employees bused hundreds of Chicago protesters to store locations, reports WBEZ. A planned strike in Memphis, Tenn., ended when no one showed up, reports The Commercial Appeal.Just one worker walked off the job in St. Cloud, Fla., and was hit with a police trespassing warning soon after, according to The Huffington Post.

So was the protest a dud? Simon's statement may be premature. Wal-Mart isn't seeing any immediate damage from the threatened strikes, but the moves may raise long-term awareness among shoppers and employees about the way the company treats its workers.

The United Food and Commercial Workers International, which has tried to organize Wal-Mart workers for years, has placed the company in the uncomfortable position of arguing that its low prices do not come at the expense of poorly paid workers. Wal-Mart executives have long maintained that the criticism is unfair.

The Wal-Mart fight underscores the growing tension between workers and employers as Obamacare gets implemented. Some experts argue that employers will slash their ranks of full-time workers ahead of the mandate requiring them to provide health insurance or pay a fine.

Wal-Mart, which is under pressure from Wall Street to improve its results, could use some good news. Friday, it announced the suspension of several executives at a joint venture in India, the latest wrinkle in a widening corruption scandal as the chain hopes to avoid the record $800 million sanction levied against Siemens (SI) in 2008.

Bharti Walmart, a venture between the chain and Indian conglomerate Bharti Enterprises, has suspended a "few associates," including the company's chief financial officer and its entire legal team, according to the New York Times, which cited a company statement and accounts in a local newspaper.

The news is hardly shocking, given that Wal-Mart recently announced that an internal investigation originally focused on Mexico had expanded to India, China and Brazil. These countries also rank high on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. Wal-Mart went on this anti-corruption kick after the Times uncovered evidence that the retailer ignored evidence of corruption in Mexico. The company operates 10,500 stores in 27 countries around the world.

The specter of Siemens' misdeeds -- investigators found 4,200 corrupt payments totaling $1.4 billion over six years -- looms large over Wal-Mart. The retailer has little choice but to continue digging. Regulators will go easier on companies that uncover their own violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or any other law, before the government does it for them. The timing of this probe couldn't have been worse.

Shares of Wal-Mart have jumped more than 16% this year, underperforming rival Target (TGT), which has gained about 25%. Wal-Mart is trading at a multiple of 14.18, near its five-year low, according to Reuters. Target is slightly cheaper with a price-to-earnings ratio of 14.12.  Wall Street analysts have an average 52-week price target on Wal-Mart of $79.44, a 14% upside. Target is expected to hit $70.05, about 9% higher than where it currently trades.

Though some argue that investors should hedge their bets and own both stocks, there is far more downside risk owning Wal-Mart than Target, especially with an ongoing internal corruption investigation and similar probes by government officials. It also isn't clear if the strong Black Friday will mean a strong holiday season -- shoppers may just be spending money earlier.
Jonathan Berr is long Target. Follow him on Twitter@jdberr.

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