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The TJX business model is built to have tremendous flexibility and grow with the times, enabling us to navigate through economic downturns as well as upturns. Over our 36-year history, we have achieved consistent, strong performance. In fact, over this period we have had only one year with a comparable store sales decline. Over the last 17 years, we have delivered annual comparable store sales increases each year, and earnings have grown solidly. Our long, successful track record through many types of economic and retail environments is one of the reasons for our confidence that our strong top- and bottom-line growth will continue for many years to come.
On the top line, we have great growth opportunities with our value proposition. At TJX, value has been our mission since Day One and we are convinced that our off-price combination of fashion, brands, quality and price will continue to be a tremendous draw for consumers in up or down economies. While we have substantially added to our customer base and expanded our customer reach, our research tells us that there remains significant opportunity to further our market penetration and tap consumers who have not yet shopped our stores. Recently, we have been successfully attracting a larger percentage of younger customers among our new U.S. customers, which bodes well for our future. To continue attracting and retaining more new customers, we plan to continue to leverage our global marketing, to upgrade the shopping experience in our stores and our in-store initiatives. Overall, we believe we continue to have major growth opportunities in our four major divisions, both in the U.S. and internationally. Beyond our successful brick-and-mortar business, we continue to view e-commerce as a great opportunity for TJX and another platform to reach more consumers with our great values.
On the bottom line, we believe we continue to have major opportunities, through the scaling of certain businesses and operating efficiencies. Operating with leaner, faster turning inventories over the last several years has resulted in excellent results for our business. Lean, fast-turning inventories allow us to be more nimble in the marketplace and be smarter in our purchasing, which, in turn, gives us the ability to drive higher merchandise margins. As effective as our supply chain is, we are continuing with our efforts to become even more precise at delivering the right goods to the right store at the right time. We also have great flexibility in real estate and continue to take advantage of excellent opportunities in the U.S. and internationally that we believe will benefit our business long term. At TJX, being a low-cost operator allows us to offer customers great values while maintaining strong profitability. Underpinning our confidence in the sustainability of our profitable growth is our financial strength and flexibility. Our strong operations and low-cost model have enabled us to deliver superior financial returns that are among the highest in retail.