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Wal-Mart pulls out of South Korea, sells 16 stores

clock03-29-2010, 12:38 AM
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By Kelly Olsen, Associated Press

SEOUL — Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) announced Monday that it is withdrawing from the highly competitive South Korean retail market, agreeing to sell its 16 stores to the country's top discount chain.

The world's largest retailer said Shinsegae Co. would buy Wal-Mart Korea for 825 billion won ($882 million), pending approval by South Korean regulators. Wal-Mart said the decision to withdraw is part of its global strategy.

"As we continue to focus our efforts where we can have the greatest impact on our growth strategy, it became increasingly clear that in South Korea's current environment it would be difficult for us to reach the scale we desired," said Mike Duke, vice chairman of Wal-Mart Stores.

Wal-Mart Korea, established in 1998, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the U.S. retailer.

Wal-Mart's performance in South Korea has been lackluster, with Wal-Mart Korea ranked at the bottom among five major discount store operators.

Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., had sales of about 750 billion won ($787 million) in South Korean in 2005, company spokesman Beth Keck said. The company had a loss of 9.9 billion won ($10 million) last year, according to figures released at a press conference in Seoul.

The sophistication of South Korea's approximately 25 trillion won ($26 billion) discount market proved difficult for Wal-Mart, analysts say.

"They failed to attract customers to the stores," said S.K. Lee, a retail analyst at Hyundai Securities in Seoul, adding that housewives in particular were dissatisfied with food and beverage offerings.

Wal-Mart also has struggled in Japan, known for its finicky consumers, but has lately boosted its investment there. Last year, it made Seiyu Ltd., the nation's fifth-largest chain with more than 400 stores, a subsidiary. But Seiyu said its loss widened in 2005 to 17.7 billion yen ($151 million).

Oh Seung-taek, an analyst at Hanwha Securities, says Britain-based Tesco PLC's Home Plus chain, ranked No. 2 in South Korea, hired a Korean chief executive and made stores "friendly" to the needs of Korean shoppers, who don't like a "warehouse-style" environment.

Shinsegae is South Korea's largest discount store chain and also runs the country's third-ranked department store chain.

In a statement, Shinsegae said it plans to operate the Wal-Mart stores as a separate subsidiary and the stores will be called E-Mart, the name of its discount chain. E-Mart, which has 86 stores, accounts for 30% of the Korean discount market, according to analysts.

The announcement of the sale came less than a month after Carrefour of France, the world's second-largest retailer, sold its South Korean unit to E.Land Group, an unlisted Korean retailer, for 1.75 trillion won ($1.8 billion).

Carrefour has been selling underperforming assets to try to refocus its spending on core markets such as France.

Shares in Shinsegae, which had been a bidder for Carrefour's South Korean operations, soared 6.6% to close at 460,000 won ($484).

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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