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Wal-Mart meeting will get serious

Thousands of Wal-Mart investors and employees will pack a northwest Arkansas sports arena Friday for the giant retailer’s annual shareholder meeting, a mix of music, celebrity flash and serious business with a pinch of criticism from dissident shareholders.

Investors will be closely watching the presentations by Chief Executive Lee Scott and top executives for word on growth strategies after the company forecast second quarter profits that could fall below Wall Street expectations.

The global retailer typically packs the 18,000-seat Bud Walton arena at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, about 30 miles south of Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville.

Activist shareholders ranging from religious orders and unions to a free-market think tank are offering 11 proposals. Such measures typically fail to win majority support.

This year’s proposals include calls for Wal-Mart to report on the gap in pay and benefits between its top executives and lowest-paid workers, on the percentage of stock awards to employees based on gender and race, on the need for universal health care plans and on the grounds for its charitable giving.

It is always a well-choreographed event with a sprinkle of big-name performers to serenade the audience. Recent years included stage appearances by Garth Brooks, Jon Bon Jovi and Jessica Simpson.

At the shareholder meeting and at an analyst conference immediately afterward, analysts will be listening for any news on Wal-Mart’s growth strategies for its core U.S. namesake stores, whose sales dwarf its faster-growing international business and its Sam’s Club membership warehouse chain.

“What everyone is wanting to hear is that they are going to get it right on fashion and they’re going to get it right on home (decor),” said Patricia Edwards, a portfolio manager and retail analyst at Wentworth, Hauser & Violich in Seattle, which holds about 42,000 Wal-Mart shares.