Wal-Mart raises August sales forecast

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BENTONVILLE, Ark. - Wal-Mart Stores Inc. raised its August sales forecast yesterday to a gain of up to 6 percent as customers drawn by back-to-school shopping snap up clothing, electronics and groceries.

The world's largest retailer had projected an increase of up to 5 percent over sales in August 2002 at U.S. stores open at least a year. That would have been the biggest monthly gain since June 2002, when sales climbed 7.9 percent. Wal-Mart gave the revised forecast on a recorded message.

The sales gains add to evidence that U.S. consumers are spending more after cutting back last year because of concerns about job cuts and the economy.

Retailers such as Target Corp., the second-largest U.S. discount chain, and No. 3 office supplies retailer OfficeMax Inc. said they expect a strong start in back to-school sales will help sales the rest of the year.

"Wal-Mart can lead the market a little bit," said Geoffrey Chamberlain, an analyst at Appleton Partners, whose $1.5 billion in assets include 55,000 Wal-Mart shares. "When people are going to start spending again, they'll start at a lower price."

Shares of Wal-Mart rose 70 cents to $59.10 on the New York Stock Exchange.

The back-to-school season is one of the more important sales periods for retailers in addition to Christmas.

Families are expected to spend an average of $451 on clothing, notebooks and other back-to-school items from late July through mid-September, 2.1 percent more than a year earlier, according to the National Retail Federation.

Sales of toys, men's clothing, electronics and pharmacy items helped boost results last week, Wal-Mart said. The retailer has increased food sales by opening more supercenters, which sell groceries as well as clothes, home furnishings and toys. Wal-Mart's August same-store sales rose 3.8 percent last year. Wal-Mart's same-store sales rose 4.6 percent in July and April. Same-store sales are a key indicator because they exclude results from new and closed locations.

To boost sales, Wal-Mart introduced Levi Strauss & Co.'s Signature jeans and expanded electronics offerings such as DVD players for college-bound students. The company also stocks extra furniture in college areas, said a Wal-Mart spokesman, Tom Williams.

Wal-Mart's increased forecast is the latest sign that consumers are increasing spending, investors said.

OfficeMax predicted that its same-store sales this quarter will rise 5 percent, helped by back-to-school sales. J.C. Penney Co., the second-largest U.S. department-store company, and Staples Inc., the world's biggest seller of office supplies, have said sales in the first weeks of the back-to-school shopping season have been strong.

Best Buy Co., the largest U.S. electronics retailer, has boosted its second-quarter and full-year profit forecasts because shoppers are buying more profitable items such as digital-television sets.

Wal-Mart and most other retailers will report August sales Sept. 4.

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