By Siddharth Cavale
(Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc forecast second-quarter profit below analysts' estimates after reporting its smallest growth in quarterly sales in nearly five years, as a severe winter kept shoppers from its stores.
Shares of the world's largest retailer fell as much as 3.4 percent before the bell on Thursday.
Wal-Mart is the latest retailer to flag a colder-than-usual winter for weak sales. Department store operator Macy's on Wednesday cited the harsh winter for a 1.7 percent decline in quarterly sales.
Shoppers found it difficult to visit Wal-Mart's gargantuan stores, mainly located on the outskirts of towns and cities, as winter storms snowed out access routes.
The company has also been struggling with a sharp cut in benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the largest U.S. anti-hunger program. At least one in five of Wal-Mart's customers relies on food stamps.
"Like other retailers in the United States, the unseasonably cold and disruptive weather negatively impacted U.S. sales and drove operating expenses higher than expected," Chief Executive Doug McMillon said in a statement.
The company said its second-quarter forecast reflected increased investments in its membership only Sam's Club stores and higher costs related to the cuts in the food stamp program.
Wal-Mart, which gets more than half of its sales from groceries, said sales at U.S. stores open for at least a year were relatively flat in the first quarter.
Bad weather hurt same-store sales by about 20 basis points, while customer visits fell 1.4 percent, the company said. Cuts in the food stamp program had a 50-basis-point impact.
The net income attributable to Wal-Mart fell to $3.59 billion, or $1.11 per share, in the first quarter ended April 30, from $3.78 billion, or $1.14 per share, a year earlier.
Adverse winter weather reduced earnings by 3 cents per share.
The company earned $1.10 per share from continuing operations, missing the average analyst estimate of $1.15 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Total revenue rose 0.8 percent to $114.96 billion, missing the average analyst estimate of $116.27 billion.
Wal-Mart's revenue growth has not dropped below 1 percent since the second quarter of fiscal 2010, when the company posted a 1.4 percent decline.
The company said it expected second-quarter earnings of $1.15-$1.25 per share from continuing operations, missing the average analyst estimate of $1.28 per share.
The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company's shares were down 3.2 percent at $76.20 in premarket trading on Thursday.
The stock has fallen 1.4 percent in the past 12 months, compared with an 8.8 percent rise in the Dow Jones Industrials index and a 6.4 percent rise in the Dow Jones global retailers index.
(Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)