updated 10/7/2004 9:58:20 AM ET 2004-10-07T13:58:20

Consumers spent frugally for a fourth straight month in September, giving major retailers modest gains during the critical back-to-school season.

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Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Talbots Inc., Federated Department Stores Inc., J.C. Penney Co. Inc., and Kohl’s Corp. were among the stores reporting sluggish results Thursday.

“There’s definitely some anxiety out there on the part of consumers,” said Ken Perkins, a research analyst at RetailMetrics LLC, a research firm in Cambridge, Mass.

Consumers, particularly low- and middle-income Americans, have been forced to cut spending on clothing and other non-necessities as gasoline prices and grocery bills rise. Americans are also nervous about jobs — last week, the Conference Board reported that job worries helped push consumer confidence down in September for the second consecutive month.

Retailers also attributed the tepid sales to the hurricanes that ravaged Florida and the southeast in late August and the first half of September, which forced many stores to close.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales preliminary sales tally of 45 retailers was up 2.5 percent, better than the 1.3 percent gain in August, but well off the average 6 percent increase of January through May. The tally is based on what the industry calls same-store sales, or sales at stores opened at least a year. They are considered the best indicator of a retailer’s performance.

Wal-Mart reported a modest 2.4 percent gain in same-store sales, in line with the forecast of Wall Street analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call. Total sales were up 10.8 percent.

ShopKo had a 1.2 percent decline in same-store sales, in line with the 1 percent decline Wall Street expected. Total sales fell 1.5 percent.

But Costco Wholesale Corp. had an 8 percent increase in same-store sales, surpassing analysts’ 6.2 percent estimate.Total sales rose 11 percent.

Talbots posted a 1.3 percent decline in same-store sales, a weak performance but better than the 4.0 percent drop Wall Street expected. Total sales were up 3 percent.

Among department stores, Federated had a 0.1 percent gain in same-store sales, better than the 0.7 percent decline analysts projected. Total sales were off 0.2 percent.

The company said it lost about $30 million in sales to Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne.

“September sales showed modest improvement relative to August, although not enough to predict a robust October,” chairman Terry J. Lundgren said in a statement.

Penney recorded a 2 percent increase in same-store sales at its department stores, in line with estimates. Total sales rose 2.3 percent.

The company noted that the hurricanes depressed results by as much as 2 percentage points. It also said that high energy prices hurt results.

Kohl’s suffered a 1.3 percent same-store sales decrease, worse than the 1.1 percent forecast. Total sales rose 13.4 percent.

Upscale retailer Neiman Marcus Group had a solid 5.6 percent increase in same-store sales, but results were slightly below the 6.0 percent Wall Street expected. Total sales were up 6.3 percent.

Results were mixed at retailers catering to teens. Pacific Sunwear of California reported a 9.8 percent rise in same-store sales, better than the 8.8 percent forecast. Total sales rose 20.8 percent.

Hot Topic Inc. had a modest 1.1 percent increase. Analysts had expected a 3.1 percent gain. Total sales were up 18 percent.

American Eagle Outfitters Inc., which reported its results Wednesday, had a 22.7 percent increase. Analysts had expected a 17.2 percent gain. Total sales were up 32.2 percent.

Also Wednesday, Big Lots Inc. reported a 2.1 percent decline in same-store sales, worse than the 0.8 percent decline Wall Street anticipated. Total sales were up 2.5 percent.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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