FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) -- Wal-Mart Stores's Vice Chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright promised shareholders at its annual meeting Friday that it will press for more diversity in its workforce and create more career opportunities for advancement.
"In the year ahead, we will take bold steps. We will not confuse efforts with results," Castro-Wright told cheering shareholders packed into a University of Arkansas arena for the company's annual meeting in Fayetteville, about 30 miles from its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Without offering specifics, Castro-Wright said that the company will do more to help associates, including hourly associates, advance in the workforce and get competitive pay.
Wal-Mart has been one of the few bright spots in retailing as it steals market share and customers away from rivals. But as the nation's biggest private employer, it is under pressure by labor-backed critics to keep improving its labor practice, though criticism has diminished recently.
Castro-Wright says that 40 percent of regional general managers are "of color." Twenty percent of that group are women.
Still, this year's annual meeting was even more of a celebration than an opportunity to respond to attacks as the company has benefited as shoppers have switched to cheaper options in a recession.
The company has pulled shoppers away from rivals because its re-emphasis on low prices along with the right mix of merchandise and marketing have come together just as the economy went sour.
Even Ben Stiller, the host of the meeting, which will be peppered with performances by such celebrities as American Idol winner Kris Allen, made a jab at Target.
"You guys get up early," said Stiller, referring to the 7 a.m start of the meeting. "I hear they are still sleeping over at Target."
Wal-Mart's earnings and sales performance continues to be a standout compared with the retail industry. Including Wal-Mart, the same-store sales index from the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs has averaged a 0.5 percent decline from February through April compared with last. Without Wal-Mart, the industry index would have fallen 4 percent. Sales at stores open at least a year are considered a key indicator of a retailer's health. Starting with May results, Wal-Mart is no longer reporting monthly sales results.
Similarly, first-quarter profits fell 12 percent this year compared with last year industrywide. Excluding Wal-Mart's positive results, industry profits would have dropped 17 percent, though the gap between Wal-Mart and the rest of the industry has narrowed as merchants increase cost-cutting, Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics, said.
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