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On the Call: Wal-Mart's US president Bill Simon

NEW YORK (AP) -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reported on Thursday that a lower tax rate helped boost net income by 8.6 percent during the fourth quarter, but the company offered a tempered forecast as its lower-income shoppers struggle with delayed income tax refunds and higher payroll taxes

Companies such as Burger King and Zale Corp. have cited slower business in recent weeks as shoppers see a shrinking paycheck. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, is an industry behemoth that accounts for nearly 10 percent of nonautomotive retail spending in the U.S., and its results are seen as a bellwether for how Americans are spending.

During a pre-recorded call for investors, Bill Simon, president of Wal-Mart's namesake U.S. business, said that after a strong start to the holiday season on the day after Thanksgiving, business has been choppy.

Q. Can you elaborate about sales trends in the last few weeks?

A. "In November, our seasonal assortment and price leadership resonated with the customer, and we kicked off the season with strong Thanksgiving and Black Friday sales. During Black Friday, our operators' planning and execution allowed us to quickly set our stores, helping us to serve over 22 million customers on Thursday alone.

The first three weeks of December were soft, given our Black Friday success and the additional shopping days this year, but we rebounded with double digit positive comps the week of Christmas, and continued with strength into the first part of January. In the last couple of weeks of the quarter, we began to see an impact from the increase in payroll taxes and the delay in the income tax refunds."