Walmart Inc. (NYSE: WMT) seemed in the midst of proving to Wall Street that it has made progress against e-commerce juggernaut Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) as it announced earnings for its most recent quarter and a number of initiatives to drive both store and online traffic. Investors have not bought into the story. Walmart’s shares have woefully underperformed Amazon’s this year and are even short of the S&P 500’s rise.
So far in 2019, Amazon’s shares are higher by 20%, almost exactly matching the S&P 500’s performance. Investors continue to be supportive of Amazon’s mix of a movie studio, e-commerce provider and the world’s largest cloud enterprise. Unlike many other retailers, it has built a new business as strong as its primary one. Amazon Web Services (AWS) makes more on its bottom line than Amazon’s North American and International businesses do together.
Walmart’s progress has been a combination of acquisitions and new initiatives using its massive brick-and-mortar platform. Walmart recently bought Polymorph Labs. The small company allows Walmart to track online activity and helps advertisers better identify Walmart customers. Walmart says it will start to “retrofit” hundreds of stores to make them lighter, more modern and easier to navigate. The company will use more robots at its facilities, which should make them more financially productive, although it may cost Walmart “associates” their jobs. It has even set up a Google voice-enable system to help shoppers.
Walmart’s Achilles’ heel, ironically, is its massive store system. It is the largest employer in many states and has over a million employees in the United States. The capital costs to cover the expenses of these stores and the employees who may make little more than minimum wage. But same-store sales continue to be little better than flat. That means e-commerce has to offset this massive raft of costs that Walmart will never be able to eliminate.
Amazon still troubles Wall Street because of its low margins on e-commerce. But this is usually forgiven because of The company’s rapid growth. Its revenue rose from $188 billion in 2017 to $233 billion last year. Founder Jeff Bezos has convinced investors that an investment in growth and market share is worth the wait for better margins. He has accumulated 100 million subscribers to Amazon Prime, the free shipping and video streaming system. Investors like the recurring revenue these subscribers bring.
And finally, AWS is the largest cloud business in the world. The division’s revenue rose from $17 billion in 2017 to $26 billion last year. More impressively, operating income rose from $4.3 billion to $7.3 billion over the same period.
The case for Walmart as an investment has simply not gotten better enough for investors to buy.