updated 1/5/2006 9:16:26 AM ET 2006-01-05T14:16:26

December sales figures from the nation’s big retailers showed that merchants had a choppy but overall respectable holiday season as consumers saved most of their shopping for the days just before and after Christmas. As expected, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. was one of the stragglers, falling short of Wall Street’s expectations.

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As merchants began reporting their December results Thursday morning, the early winners included Target Corp., Costco Wholesale Corp., Nordstrom Inc., and teen retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch Co.

“So far, very good results relative to lower expectations,” said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics LLC, a research firm in Swampscott, Mass.

But Perkins warned that it is “going to be a tough sledding for retailers” over the next few months as higher heating bills could further squeeze consumer spending.

After an uneven start to the holiday season, many retailers struggled in December, as shoppers appeared to prolong their buying even later than in the past. There were a number of factors at play, including Hanukkah falling particularly late this year, on Dec. 25, and the New York City transit strike, which occurred in the critical final days before Christmas, hurting retailers in Manhattan.

Gift card sales also pushed December business into January or even later; gift card sales are only recorded when they are redeemed.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer posted a slim 2.2 percent gain in same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year. Same-store sales are considered the best indicator of a retailer’s health. The results missed the 2.4 percent estimate from analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial. Total sales rose 6.3 percent.

Wal-Mart also said its fourth-quarter profits would come in at the low end of expectations.

Rival Target, which had a slow start to the holiday season, rebounded with a 4.7 percent gain in same-store sales in December, better than the 4.6 percent analysts estimate. Total sales rose 11.6 percent. The company said it remained comfortable with its fourth-quarter outlook.

Costco posted a 7 percent gain in same-store sales, beat the 6 percent estimate from analysts. Total sales rose 10 percent.

Luxury retailers again had the best performance among department stores.

Nordstrom had a 7.7 percent gain in same-store sales, much better than the 3.8 percent Wall Street expected. Total sales rose 10.7 percent.

Federated Department Stores Inc. posted a 3.4 percent gain in same-store sales, better than the 2.1 percent increase from Wall Street. Total sales, which include stores from the company’s 2005 acquisition of May Department Stores Co., rose nearly 100 percent.

“We are pleased with Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s performance in December, despite disruptions caused by the New York City transit strike the week before Christmas,” said Terry J. Lundgren, chairman, president and CEO in a statement.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc had a 2.2 percent increase in same-store sales in its department store group, missing the 2.5 percent estimate from Wall Street. Total sales rose 3.1 percent.

Talbots Inc. had a 1.1 percent gain in same-store sales, missing analysts’ 1.5 percent projection. Total sales rose 3 percent.

Limited Brands Inc. had a solid 3 percent same-store sales gain, though it was less than the 3.4 percent forecast. Total sales rose 5 percent.

Abercrombie & Fitch had a 29 percent gain in same-store sales, beating the 18.2 percent estimate from Wall Street. Total sales rose 41 percent.

Bebe Stores Inc. reported a 1.1 percent gain in same-store sales, missing the 2.6 percent estimate. Total sales rose 11.1 percent.

On Wednesday, American Eagle Outfitters Inc. announced a 9.8 percent same-store sales gain, well exceeding the 3.5 percent estimate. Total sales rose 15.5 percent.

Aeropostale Inc., which heavily discounted this holiday season, said Wednesday it had an 11.4 percent increase in same-store sales, far exceeding the 4.3 percent forecast.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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