Charles Rex Arbogast  /  AP file
Wal-Mart, which had muted its August sales outlook in mid-August, posted a slim 0.5 percent increase in same-store sales, missing Wall Street forecasts for a 1.5 percent gain.
updated 9/2/2004 4:28:28 PM ET 2004-09-02T20:28:28

The start of the back-to-school shopping season was a disappointment for major retailers, giving the industry a third straight month of listless sales. Higher gasoline prices contributed to the poor showing.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Limited Brands, Talbots Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. were among the companies issuing reports of sluggish sales Thursday.

“Overall, this doesn’t look so good,” said Ken Perkins, president and research analyst at RetailMetrics LLC, a Boston-based independent research company. “There are number of different factors that are coming together to dampen consumer spending.”

Retailers found low-to-middle-income shoppers were more frugal in response to higher gas prices and also higher grocery bills. Sales figures were also affected by technical factors, a late Labor Day weekend, which will come a week later than a year ago and will push sales into the September reporting period, and the fact that year-earlier results were boosted by the government’s one-time child care tax credits.

But overall, sales were hurt by consumers’ concerns about money and jobs. On Tuesday, the Conference Board reported a larger than expected decline in consumer confidence, and attributed the slide to Americans’ worries about the job market.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, which had muted its August sales outlook in mid-August, posted a slim 0.5 percent increase in same-store sales, missing Wall Street forecasts for a 1.5 percent gain.

Same-store sales are sales at stores open at least a year and are considered the best indicator of a retailers’ health. Total sales at Wal-Mart rose 8.8 percent.

Costco reported a 4 percent gain in same-store sales, missing Wall Street’s 7.3 percent forecast. Total sales were up 7 percent.

ShopKo Stores Inc. posted a 0.2 percent decrease in same-store sales, better than the 2 percent decline Wall Street expected. Total sales fell 0.5 percent.

Big Lots Inc. suffered a 2.0 percent decrease, worse than analysts’ 0.4 percent estimates. Total sales rose 2.9 percent.

Mall-based apparel stores also struggled.

Major Market Indices

Limited Brands suffered a 2 percent drop in same-store sales, worse than the 0.3 percent projected decline. Total sales slipped 0.3 percent.

Talbots had a 4.6 percent drop in same-store sales, a slightly better result than the 5.3 percent Wall Street forecast. Total sales fell 1 percent.

But high-end department stores, whose business is less vulnerable to the rising energy prices, again beat expectations. Nordstrom Inc. had a 7.2 percent gain in same-store sales, surpassing Wall Street 4.7 percent estimates. Total sales rose 8.2 percent.

Among mid-range department stores, J.C. Penney Stores Co. Inc. reported a solid 3.8 percent gain in same-store sales in its department store business but missed analysts’ forecasts of a 4.8 percent gain. Total sales rose 4.3 percent.

On Wednesday, American Eagle Outfitters Inc., which analysts say has been stealing market share from other teen retailers this past season, reported a 23.9 percent increase in same-store sales. That was well above the 13.9 percent increase that analysts expected. Total sales were up 34 percent.

But rival Hot Topic Inc. had an 8.7 percent decline in same-store sales, about in line with analysts’ estimates of an 8.4 percent decline. Total sales rose 8 percent.

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