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A delay in tax refunds could be the culprit.
Wal-Mart's fourth-quarter earnings announcement was just released.
In the announcement, the company addressed the emails circulated among executives that leaked on Friday, describing February sales figures as a "total disaster," and citing the effects of the payroll tax hike as the main culprit.
However, a few analysts and economists pointed out that it could be due to a delay in tax refunds this year that were pushed back because of changes to laws that were part of the fiscal cliff.
The implication was that consumers were waiting to get their tax refunds before buying that new flat-screen TV, so Wal-Mart's sales started slower than expected this month.
In the release, Wal-Mart admitted that delayed tax refunds seem to be the primary driver, contrary to what was said in the leaked emails (emphasis added):
"We are confident that our low prices will continue to resonate, as families adjust to a reduced paycheck and increased gas prices," Simon said. "We see the underlying health of the Walmart U.S. business is sound, and sales trends are similar to what we've demonstrated in the last few quarters.
However, February sales started slower than planned, due in large part, to the delay in income tax refunds. 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.
Due to the slower sales rate in the first few weeks of this year's first quarter, we are forecasting comp sales for the 13-week period from Jan. 26 to Apr. 26, 2013 to be around flat. We continue to monitor economic conditions that can impact our sales, such as rising fuel prices, changes in inflation and the payroll tax increase."
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