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Walmart lifts outlook on strong earnings but hit by opioid settlement

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Walmart posted a loss in the third quarter after a settlement resolving claims that it contributed to the nationwide opioid crisis./AFP
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Nov 16, 2022 - 10:28 AM

NEW YORK — US retailer Walmart on Tuesday saw its earnings top expectations in the third quarter as consumers looked for bargains amid surging inflation, but its numbers were weighed down by a settlement stemming from the US opioid crisis.

The big-box retailer said it continued to gain market share in the grocery sector, raising its full-year outlook on strong results despite a challenging environment this year.

Total revenue came in better than expected at $152.8 billion, up 8.7 percent from a year ago.

Walmart also expects that its full-year adjusted profit will decline between 6.5 percent and 7.5 percent — an improvement from earlier estimates.

But its numbers were weakened by a settlement resolving allegations that it contributed to the opioid crisis in America by failing to regulate prescriptions at stores.

The deal is set to provide $3.1 billion to communities nationwide and “require significant improvements in how Walmart’s pharmacies handle opioids,” according to a statement by New York Attorney General Letitia James’s office.

The opioid crisis in the United States has caused more than 500,000 deaths over 20 years and triggered a flurry of lawsuits against drugmakers, distributors and pharmacies.

US pharmacy chains CVS Health and Walgreens similarly announced preliminary agreements this month to pay a total of more than $10 billion to resolve opioid claims.

“Pharmacies such as Walmart played an undeniable role” in perpetuating the harm caused by opioids, said James, adding that the settlement is being sent to other states for review and approval.

In a separate statement, Walmart said it “strongly disputes” the allegations but believes the settlement will help communities in the fight against the crisis.

The settlement does not cover a lawsuit the Justice Department filed in late 2020 accusing Walmart of filling thousands of invalid prescriptions and ignoring red flags about problem orders.

Gains in grocery 

“With the cost of everyday items still stubbornly high in too many categories, more customers and members are choosing us for the value and assortment we’re known for,” Walmart Chief Executive Doug McMillon told an earnings call.

Customers are shopping with Walmart more often as well, including wealthier consumers, he said.

“Walmart US continued to gain market share in grocery, helped by unit growth in our food business,” McMillon said in a statement, adding that the company has improved its inventory position.

Inventories were up only 13 percent from a year ago, compared with bigger increases previously. To manage stocks, the company cancelled orders and raised the level of markdowns.

In a sign of optimism about its business, the company also announced a $20 billion share buyback authorization.

“When consumer finances get tough, Walmart gets going. That is the central message from today’s strong set of numbers,” said GlobalData managing director Neil Saunders in an analysis.

He noted that most of the company’s expansion is occurring in grocery where shoppers are feeling the pinch.

Although some of this is down to inflation, “there has also been volume growth which reflects the increase in customer numbers.”

With US inflation hovering near a decades-high level, consumers have been spending more on staples and pulling back on discretionary items, forcing Walmart to cut its profit outlook in July.

The company also announced in recent months that it would hire 40,000 workers for the upcoming holiday season, significantly lower than before.

Investors have been eyeing Walmart’s results as a proxy for demand, and Wall Street stocks climbed in morning trading on signs of resilience among consumers.

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