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Walmart executives sweat slow start to February sales

NEW YORK — Walmart Stores Inc. had the worst sales start to a month in seven years as payroll tax increases hit shoppers already battling a slow economy, according to internal e-mails obtained by Bloomberg News.

‘‘In case you haven’t seen a sales report these days, February MTD sales are a total disaster,’’ Jerry Murray, Walmart’s vice president of finance and logistics, said in a Feb. 12 e-mail to other executives, referring to month-to-date sales. ‘‘The worst start to a month I have seen in my ~ 7 years with the company.’’

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Walmart and discounters such as Family Dollar Stores are bracing for the rise in the payroll tax to take a bigger bite from the paychecks of shoppers already dealing with elevated unemployment. The world’s largest retailer’s struggles come after executives expected a strong start to February because of the Super Bowl, milder weather and paycheck cycles, according to the minutes of a Feb. 1 officers meeting Bloomberg obtained.

Murray’s comments about February sales follow disappointing results from January, a month that Cameron Geiger, senior vice president of Walmart US Replenishment, said he was relieved to see end, according to a separate internal e-mail obtained by Bloomberg.

‘‘Have you ever had one of those weeks where your best-prepared plans weren’t good enough to accomplish everything you set out to do?’’ Geiger asked in a Feb. 1 e-mail to executives. ‘‘Well, we just had one of those weeks here at Walmart U.S. Where are all the customers? And where’s their money?’’

‘‘As with any organization, we often see internal communications that are not entirely accurate, that lack the proper context and represent individual opinions,’’ David Tovar, a Walmart spokesman, said in an interview, adding that the company will report fourth-quarter earnings on Feb. 21. Walmart’s fourth quarter ends in January.

Murray and Geiger didn’t immediately return telephone and e-mail messages seeking comment.

Both executives attributed the performance to increased payroll taxes and delayed tax returns, which Geiger called ‘‘a potent one-two punch,’’ according to the e-mails.

About $19.7 billion more in tax refunds had been delivered to shoppers by this time last year, according to an analysis prepared by Walmart’s Global Customer Insights & Analytics division that was attached to Murray’s e-mail on Feb. 12. The retailer expected returns to be delayed by three to four weeks because of the late release of tax forms and additional, federally mandated tax-fraud scrutiny.

Geiger in his e-mail urged employees to improve business by ‘‘fixing something that could really make a difference to our performance.’’

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