Wal-Mart just signaled a terrifying new reality for American retail

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Walmart is not expecting any significant sales growth in the coming year -- and that's bad news for the retail industry as a whole.

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In October, the retail giant said that net sales would grow 3 percent to 4 percent every year for the next three years. However, in its fourth-quarter earnings results on Thursday, Walmart had a less optimistic prediction for fiscal 2017 (calendar year 2016).

"Including store closures and the impact of the strengthening U.S. dollar, we now expect net sales growth to be relatively flat in fiscal year 2017," Walmart CFO Brett Biggs said in the company's earnings call.

Walmart closed 269 stores in late January, laying off thousands of employees.

For retail rivals, Walmart's struggles are not cause for celebration. Instead, they reveal a swiftly changing retail landscape where few can keep up.

"The blunt truth is that while stores remain a vital part of the retail mix, they are not quite as relevant as they used to be," Conlumino CEO Neil Saunders wrote in a research note about the company's recent store closures. "Walmart's decision is part of a larger shift that will be played out across all parts of the retail sector over the coming year and beyond."

Department store giant Macy's also revealed it would close 40 stores in early 2016. These two major retailers' decisions to shut hundreds of stores are not anomalies in the industry.

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The growth of online retailers, especially Amazon, has made shopping trips less appealing. Just as mall traffic has decreased (Fung Business Intelligence Centre estimates that the average American now visits a mall three to four times a year, as opposed to five to six times a few years ago), visits to big box retailers are also dropping.

When one store closes, it sets off a domino effect of closures. If a mall anchor, such as Macy's or Sears, shuts down, it can be difficult to find another tenant to replace them, according to Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail-consulting and investment-banking firm.

These retailers' best chance to turn things around is to invest in e-commerce.

On Thursday, Walmart reported that global ecommerce sales grew 12% last year. Now, the company (which has spent billions of dollars growing its ecommerce business) says it is focusing on building a digital relationship with customers, scaling its online assortment, and expanding online grocery.

Ironically, an increase in online sales would likely reduce the number of necessary Walmart locations and employees, potentially leading to more store closures. While Walmart has emphasized "seamless" integration of online and in-store experiences, the growth of digital represents a major shift in what shopping "at" Walmart means.

Even if retail giants are able to turn business around by growing ecommerce sales, customers should not be surprised if more closures are on the horizon as the retail industry adjusts to this seismic shift.

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Wal-Mart just signaled a terrifying new reality for American retail
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR WALMART INC. - Walmart CEO Doug McMillon talks to an audience of suppliers and Walmart associates at the Walmart Product Sustainability Expo, on Tuesday, April 29, 2014 in Rogers, Ark. Walmart kicked off its inaugural Sustainable Product Expo, a three day collaboration with its suppliers to expand the availability of products that sustain people and the environment. Participating suppliers represent more than $100 billion in sales at Walmart; underlining the scale and scope of the Expo. (Spencer Tirey/AP Images for Walmart Inc.)
A Walmart sign shows gas prices starting at $2.78, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, in San Antonio. U.S. pump prices are the lowest they've been since February 2011. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
A man pushes a shopping cart outside of a Walmart store that boarded its entrance and closed early in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014, as the area prepares for Hurricane Iselle. Hurricane Iselle is expected to arrive on the Big Island on Thursday evening, bringing heavy rains, winds gusting up to 85 mph and flooding in some areas. Weather officials changed their outlook on the system Wednesday after seeing it get a little stronger, giving it enough oomph to stay a hurricane as it reaches landfall. (AP Photo/Chris Stewart)
President Barack Obama, center facing rear, shakes hands with Joel Anderson, CEO and President of Walmart.com, center right, after speaking at a Walmart store in Mountain View, Calif., Friday, May 9, 2014. Obama announced new steps by companies, local governments and his own administration to deploy solar technology, showcasing steps to combat climate change that don't require consent from a disinclined Congress. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
President Barack Obama waves after speaking at a Walmart store in Mountain View, Calif., Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
President Barack Obama shakes hands with supporters after speaking at a Walmart store in Mountain View, Calif., Friday, May 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR WALMART, INC. - Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, left, watches as Indra Nooyi, Chairperson, CEO of PepsiCo, signs a new commitment to accelerate innovation in sustainable agriculture and recycling along with second from right, Ken Powell, CEO General Mills and John Bryant, CEO Kellogg during Walmart's inaugural Sustainability Product Expo, on Tuesday, April 29, 2014 in Rogers, Ark. Eight of the largest food companies announced pledges to help ensure that tomorrow’s food supply is affordable and sustainable. Companies also announced plans to launch a groundbreaking recycling initiative called the Closed Loop Fund, with the goal of making recycling available to all Americans. (Spencer Tirey/AP Images for Walmart Inc.)
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR WALMART INC. - Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, left, and Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley shake hands after announcing, Tuesday April 29, 2014, a commitment to a 25 percent reduction in water per dose for all liquid laundry detergent at the John Q. Hammons Center in Rogers, Ark. during the inaugural Walmart Sustainable Product Expo. Procter & Gamble supports Walmart’s challenge to reduce water in liquid laundry detergents because it’s good for consumers and good for business. The smaller bottles also mean more energy-efficient packaging too. (Spencer Tirey/AP Images for Walmart Inc.)
At Walmart'€™s inaugural Sustainability Product Expo, Tuesday, April 29, 2014, CEO Doug McMillon grabs a selfie along with other CEOs from major supplier companies after they sign new commitments to accelerate innovation in sustainable agriculture and recycling. They all announced pledges to help ensure that tomorrow’s food supply is affordable and sustainable, and they also launched a groundbreaking recycling initiative called the Closed Loop Fund with the goal of making recycling available to all Americans. (Spencer Tirey/AP Images for Walmart Inc.)
In this Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013 photo, a family leaves a local Walmart in Mexico City. Looking around a Mexico dotted by Starbucks, Wal-Marts and Krispy Kreme outlets, it's hard to remember the country before the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has dramatically expanded consumer choice and trade since it took effect 20 years ago.(AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
In this Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, photo, Hot Wheels cars, a Mattel product, are displayed in a Walmart store in Robinson Township, Pa. Mattel Inc. reports quarterly financial results before the market open on Friday, Jan. 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
A sign at the register inside a Bentonville Wal-Mart store seen at Colgate and Champions for Kids for SIMPLE Giving, on Thursday, March 27, 2014, in Bentonville, Ark. (Photo by Beth Hall/Invision for Cohn & Wolfe - New York/AP Images)
** HOLD FOR BLACK FRIDAY LAW ** Tony Rodriguez, Walmart associate, stocks the holiday section of a Walmart store in advance of Black Friday sales in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
** HOLD FOR BLACK FRIDAY LAW ** Walmart associate Tammy Henderson stocks garland in the holiday section of a Walmart store in advance of Black Friday sales in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
In this Nov. 26, 2013 photo toy are displayed for Black Friday sales in a Walmart store in Oklahoma City. For the first time in 70 years, Oklahoma residents can legally enjoy Black Friday mega-deals after legislators repealed parts of a law that prohibited retailers from selling items for less than they paid. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
In this Nov. 26, 2013 photo is a display of televisions in a Walmart store ready for Black Friday sales at a Walmart store in Oklahoma City. For the first time in 70 years, Oklahoma residents can legally enjoy Black Friday mega-deals after legislators repealed parts of a law that prohibited retailers from selling items for less than they paid. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
** HOLD FOR BLACK FRIDAY LAW ** Steve Baker pauses to take a closer look at a display of special Black Friday sale items as he shops in a Walmart store in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
** HOLD FOR BLACK FRIDAY LAW ** Steve Baker pushes his cart past a display of special Black Friday sale items as he shops in a Walmart store in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
This Sept. 19, 2013 photo shows the sign of a Walmart store in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A woman shops in the grocery department at a Walmart store in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A Walmart representative demonstrates a Scan & Go mobile application on a smartphone at a Walmart store in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
A man shops at a Walmart store in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Customers walk outside of a Walmart store in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Reusable shopping bags are offered for sale at new Walmart Neighborhood Market, opening its 34,000 square foot store in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Consumers shop for meat products at the new Walmart Neighborhood Market, opening its 34,000 square foot store in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Nature Harvest Bread sales agents restock loaves of bread at the new Walmart Neighborhood Market, opening its 34,000 square foot store in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, file photo, costumers shop at a new Walmart in Los Angeles. The government reports on sales at U.S. retailers in September on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
A senior consumer shops for fruits at the new Walmart Neighborhood Market, opening its 34,000 square foot store in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Consumers arrive at the opening of the new Walmart Neighborhood Market, opening its 34,000 square foot store in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Consumers shop at the new Walmart Neighborhood Market, opening its 34,000 square foot store in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Bimbo Bakeries USA's Bimbo Bear, right, welcomes consumers at the new Walmart Neighborhood Market, opening its 34,000 square foot store in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
FILE - In this June 7, 2013 file photo, Doug McMillon, President and CEO, Wal-Mart International, speaks at the shareholders meeting in Fayetteville, Ark. Wal-Mart Stores on Monday, Nov. 25, 2013 announced that CEO and President Mike Duke is stepping down from those posts, and named McMillon as his successor, effective Feb. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/April L. Brown, File)
Consumers shop at the new Walmart Neighborhood Market, opening its 34,000 square foot store in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
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