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Retailers post sluggish sales for November

The holiday shopping season got off to a rough start as consumers took advantage of big Thanksgiving discounts and then pulled back, leaving stores with mixed November  results.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The holiday shopping season got off to an uneasy start as consumers took advantage of big Thanksgiving weekend discounts and then pulled back, leaving retailers with mixed sales results for November.

As retailers reported their sales results Thursday, warehouse club operators like Costco Wholesale Corp. and discounter Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which were able to keep crowds coming with special offers, proved to be winners. But plenty of others, particularly mall-based apparel stores including Limited Brands Inc. and teen retailer Wet Seal Inc., had disappointing results.

Wal-Mart rival Target Corp. warned that it may not be able to meet its fourth-quarter earnings projections if sales don’t significantly improve after falling off the final week of November following a solid showing over Thanksgiving weekend.

Department stores Macy’s Inc. and Nordstrom Inc. reported robust sales, but that was mostly due to a quirk in the calendar that resulted in an additional week after Thanksgiving falling into the month of November compared to December last year.

“Those retailers that did a lot of promoting were able to drive traffic not just on Black Friday but through the following week,” said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics LLC, a research company in Swampscott, Mass. Still, he added, “consumers are still facing the same old economic headwinds.”

The UBS-International Council of Shopping Centers tally of 43 retailers posted a 3.5 percent gain in same-store sales in November, but excluding the calendar shift, Michael P. Niemira, chief economist, said the tally would have been up 2.5 percent.The tally is based on sales or sales at stores opened at least a year, and are considered the key reason for a retailer’s health.

November’s pace, helped by colder weather, was better than retailers’ performance in September and October which averaged about a 1.6 percent gain, but was also in line with the less than robust 2.4 percent pace seen since Febuary, the start of the retail calendar year.

Analysts say it is best to look at the combined November-December figures to get a better picture.

“In many respects, it is the same story, and the worries are the same,” said Niemira.” There is still unease throughout the industry.”

With Christmas about three weeks away, the retail industry is struggling with consumers’ eroding confidence and a weak sales trend amid mounting problems in the economy. Shoppers have been faced with higher gas and food bills and slumping value of their homes. Tighter credit has also become an issue.

The one bright spot is that the job market has held up. Analysts are awaiting Friday’s employment report from the Labor Department, and are looking for clues as to whether the Federal Reserve will feel the need to cut interest rates again to keep the economy out of a recession.

On Thursday, the department reported a 15,000 drop in the number of first-time jobless benefits claims made last week, a sign of fewer layoffs. However, analysts noted there is a great deal of volatility in jobless claims around holiday periods.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, said its same-store sales rose 1.5 percent in November, beating the 1.2 percent estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Financial.

In a statement, Wal-Mart said sales the day after Thanksgiving were solid across the store, from entertainment items to sleepwear. The company said that apparel sales improved, but home furnishings sales remain weak.

Wal-Mart projected that December same-store sales will be up anywhere from 1 percent to 3 percent.

Rival Target didn’t fare as well. The discounter, known for its cheap chic merchandise, said same-store sales rose 10.8 percent, above the 10.3 percent Wall Street estimate, helped by the quirk in the calendar. But on an adjusted basis, same-store sales increased only 1.1 percent, and the discounter warned that it may not be able to meet its fourth-quarter earnings projections if business doesn’t significantly improve.

“Our sales results largely met expectations through our two-day post-Thanksgiving event, but softness in the final week of November caused the month overall to fall short of our planned range,” said Bob Ulrich, chairman and chief executive officer in a statement. He added that the late-month shortfall was concentrated in key seasonal categories including toys and holiday decorations, but other home and apparel categories also fell short of sales expectations.

Costco said same-store sales rose 9 percent in the November period, fed by double-digit growth in its international segment. Analysts expected a 6.6 percent gain.

Macy’s reported same-stores sales rose 13.4 percent, beating the 8.2 percent estimate. In a statement, CEO Terry J. Lundgren said the company benefited from colder weather and the calendar shift, which will hurt December figures. The company projected sales for the current month will be down anywhere from 4 to 7 percent.

Despite the calendar shift, J.C. Penney Co.’s same-store results missed expectations, reporting a 2.6 percent gain in its department store business,below the 3.7 percent estimate. That calendar quirk is expected to depress sales results in December and January.

Nordstrom, which had struggled in the fall, rebounded with an 8.7 percent gain in same-store sales, better than the 3.7 percent estimate. It said the calendar shift would depress sales in December.

Meanwhile, results at mall-based apparel chains were mostly sluggish.

AnnTaylor Stores Corp. said same-store sales rose 3.9 percent in November, better than the 2.5 percent estimate, but noted that traffic began to wane toward the end of the month.

Gap Inc., which has long struggled with declining same-store sales, said results were unchanged from a year ago. Analysts expected a 4.8 percent drop.

Limited had a 7 percent decline in same-store sales, worse than the 5 percent projected.

Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. had a same-store sales increase of 2.3 percent, a bit below the 2.8 percent projection.

Wet Seal’s same-store sales declined 1.7 percent, better than the 5.3 percent forecast