Wal-Mart sees its future as digital

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NEW YORK — Wal-Mart is all about online, anticipating digital sales next fiscal year will rise about 40 percent and that it will double the number of U.S. curbside locations for online grocery shoppers at its stores.

But the world’s largest retailer continues to scale back new store growth in the U.S., with plans to open only 25 in its fiscal year 2019, which ends January 2019. That compares with opening 230 new U.S. stores during fiscal 2016.

The retail behemoth is predicting net sales growth at or above 3 percent, driven by online sales and growth from existing stores for the next fiscal year.

The company reiterated its per-share earnings guidance for next year and launched a two-year, $20 billion share repurchase program.

Shares rose more than 4 percent on the news

“No doubt we are in a transformational period of history,” said Doug McMillon, CEO of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., in an address Tuesday to investors at an annual meeting in Bentonville, Ark. “Our future is looking more digital.”

The retailer is armoring up online to take on Amazon.com and more traditional rivals, like Target. Wal-Mart paid more than $3 billion for online retailer Jet last year to speed its evolution. It’s been acquiring smaller players like ModCloth, Moosejaw and Bonobos. It’s also deploying digital kiosks called Pickup Towers at a hundred of its stores which spit out products bought on Walmart.com. But it has an eye on expanding on groceries online, an underserved market. Wal-Mart has fast expanded the number of U.S. stores that allow online grocery shoppers to pick up orders at the curb. Currently 1,000 U.S. locations are participating.

Wal-Mart is also testing the idea of a new service in Silicon Valley that lets a delivery person walk into shoppers’ homes with internet-connected locks when they’re not there to drop off packages or put groceries in the fridge.

The company went live with voice-activated shopping with Google in answer to Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo devices. Wal-Mart said customers can now start shopping for more than 2 million Wal-Mart items via Google Assistant as well as Google Express and its app. Wal-Mart announced its partnership with Google in August.

And starting next month, returns may be getting easier. Customers can scan goods they no longer want with a smartphone and drop them off at a customer service desk. Wal-Mart says that will take 35 seconds or less. Returns right now take about four times that, not including any wait in line.

Earlier this year, Wal-Mart revamped its shipping program and now offers free, two-day shipping for online orders of its most popular items with a minimum purchase order of $35.

Wal-Mart says it’s critical to get shoppers to spend both online and in stores. Store shoppers who become online customers spend nearly twice as much overall. And those who use online grocery pickup buy more overall.