Market Minute: Walmart Blames Taxes for February Sales 'Disaster'

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Walmart (WMT) acknowledged its sluggish February sales in its fourth-quarter earnings release this morning, but blamed its woes largely on tax issues.

The fourth quarter itself -- which ended January 31 -- was a mixed bag for the retail giant. While earnings topped estimates, its net sales for the quarter were $127.1 billion, about $1.7 billion lower than expected. And same-store sales rose just 1% for the quarter.

But the big story going into the report was that February sales "disaster."

Earlier this month, internal emails acquired by Bloomberg showed Walmart executives in a state of panic over the slow start to the month. One executive, Walmart vice president Jerry Murray, called the sales figures a "total disaster" and said they were the worst he'd seen to start a month in about seven years.

Walmart earningsThe revelation sent Walmart's stock plummeting and analysts hunting for explanations, and many had pointed to taxes as the culprit. The expiration of the payroll tax holiday had already slowed retail sales in January, and it was expected that Walmart would be affected. Some analysts further pointed out that an expected delay of tax refunds due to Congress' last-minute deal on the fiscal cliff could have left shoppers with less money in their pockets this month than usual.

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As it turns out, Walmart has decided to blame both tax issues for its slow start this year.

In the earnings report Thursday morning, the company projected that flat growth would continue through April, and said that it would "continue to monitor economic conditions that can impact our sales, such as rising fuel prices, changes in inflation and the payroll tax increase."

And it fingered tax-refund delays as the main culprit for those dismal February numbers.

"February sales started slower than planned, due in large part, to the delay in income tax refunds," the company writes. "We began seeing increased tax refund check activity late last week in our stores, resulting in a more normalized weekly sales pattern for this time of the year."

In other words, now that the refund checks are starting to flow, customers are finally coming in to Walmart spend their annual IRS windfalls.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.
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