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Wal-Mart looks overseas

Global strategy plans 500,000 jobs in next five years.

Thomas Schoewe, chief financial officer at Wal-Mart, speaks at the shareholders' meeting.
Thomas Schoewe, chief financial officer at Wal-Mart, speaks at the shareholders' meeting.Read moreAPRIL L. BROWN / Associated Press

FAYATTEVILLE, ARK. - Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said Friday it planned to create 500,000 jobs in the next five years as part of a global strategy to help boost sales.

The retailer announced the plan and a $15 billion share-buyback program at its annual shareholder meeting that was attended by about 16,000 people.

Wal-Mart, which has 2.2 million employees worldwide, is hiring internationally because traffic and sales at U.S. stores open at least a year have declined, hurt by higher gasoline prices and unemployment.

"These external headwinds are real," Eduardo Castro-Wright, vice chairman and U.S. stores chief, told the shareholders. Competition from other retailers "is stiffer than ever," he said.

The company was short on specifics on how it would turn around weak business at its U.S. Wal-Mart stores as the rest of the retail industry, including its key competitor, Target Corp., has started to heat up.

A year ago, Wal-Mart was in the sweet spot during the Great Recession. As shoppers traded down to cheaper stores, it saw big gains in sales and market share. But now Wal-Mart is struggling to hold on to customers. Its cash-strapped shoppers are looking elsewhere - such as dollar stores and local grocery chains - for even better deals than Wal-Mart offers. And some better-off customers, feeling more flush again, are heading back to the mall or Target.

Chief executive Mike Duke said the company must further cut expenses to keep its hallmark low prices lower than the competition.

The share buyback replaces a previous $15 billion program, which was announced June 5, 2009, and had about $4.7 billion left, Wal-Mart said in a statement. The company bought 55.6 million shares for $3 billion in the first quarter.