Video: Sluggish shopping seen

updated 11/4/2004 12:00:26 PM ET 2004-11-04T17:00:26

The holiday outlook brightened a bit Thursday as many national retailers reported better sales in October, but discounters had another month of lackluster results.

Many mall-based apparel stores, including Limited Brands, Talbots and Gap, saw a rebound in spending, helped by cooler weather. Wal-Mart and ShopKo Stores were among discount merchants extending a sluggish streak that began in June.

“There was definitely more broad-based growth across the apparel group. But the low-end consumer continues to be hurt on two fronts — jobs and wage growth and higher energy prices,” said Ken Perkins, an analyst at RetailMetrics LLC, a research firm in Cambridge, Mass.

“This is a little more encouraging as we head into the holiday season, though it is not a harbinger for a stellar shopping season.”

Even in more secure economic times, it’s hard to tell from October sales how the holiday season will fare — whether consumers will shop enthusiastically from the start or put off their buying until late December and force retailers to slash their prices.

Many storeowners are uneasy about the holidays, especially after the Conference Board reported last week that consumer confidence fell to a seven-month low in October.

It’s clear shoppers will be looking for value. The upscale discounter Target Corp., for one, reported a 6 percent gain in sales from stores open at least a year. Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call had expected a 5.6 percent. Total sales were up 12.6 percent.

So-called same-store sales are considered the best indicator of a retailer’s performance.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales tally of 71 retailers rose 4.0 percent in October, reaching the high end of expectations. That was the best performance since May, when retailers recorded a 5.7 percent gain, chief economist Michael P. Niemira said. In September, retail sales were up 2.4 percent.

Wal-Mart recorded a 2.8 percent increase in same-store sales. Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call expected a 3 percent gain. Total sales were up 10.4 percent.

Discount retailer ShopKo recorded a 3.1 percent decline in same-store sales. Analysts expected a 1 percent gain at ShopKo; its total sales fell 2.9 percent.

Major Market Indices

On the other hand, clothing chains Gap and Talbots gains both outstripped Wall Street estimates. Limited reported a robust 14 percent increase in same-store sales in October, only slightly below Wall Street’s estimate.

Within department stores, strong appliance sales helped Sears, Roebuck and Co. to a 1.9 percent same-store sales increase in domestic business in October, better than the 0.5 percent decline Wall Street expected. Total sales were up 0.1 percent.

J.C. Penney Co. had a 2.1 percent gain in sales at its department store business, slightly better than the 2.2 percent forecast. Total sales were up 2.3 percent.

Federated Department Stores reported a 4 percent increase in same-store sales, surpassing the 2.6 percent analysts expected, as it enjoyed a post-hurricane sales rebound in Florida. Total sales rose 3.8 percent. But the company, whose stores include Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, warned that same-store sales in November would be up no more than 2 percent.

High-end stores again posted robust gains.

Neiman Marcus Group, which operates Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus stores, had a 13.6 percent gain in same-store sales in October, surpassing the 8 percent Wall Street expected. Total sales gained 13.7 percent. Saks also beat estimates.

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