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Retail sales figures reveal consumers' concerns

Consumers struggling with higher gasoline prices and the economic fallout from Hurricane Katrina shopped for basics at discounters and avoided mall-based apparel stores in September, leaving retailers with mixed results.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The outlook for the holiday shopping season grew murkier Thursday as the nation’s big retailers reported September sales figures that revealed consumers’ growing anxiety about the economy.

Americans struggling with higher gasoline prices and the economic fallout from Hurricane Katrina shopped for basics at discounters, and so retailers including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. had a solid month. But they avoided spending on nonessential items, leaving many mall-based apparel stores including Gap Inc., Ann Taylor Corp. and Talbots Inc., disappointed.

The question now is how generous will shoppers be during the holiday season.

“Uncertainty is always bad for retailers,” said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at The International Council of Shopping Centers. “And that uncertainty did not vanish with today’s reports. We have the same worries about gasoline prices, home heating and the sustainability of consumer demand.”

Niemira added that the only certainty is that the broad story hasn’t changed — teen retailers and high-end stores continue to do generally well.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales tally of 70 retailers rose a better-than-expected 4.0 percent in September, about the same pace merchants have seen all year, but Niemira warned that the sales figures doesn’t tell the whole story. The tally is based on same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year.

“Overall, the numbers look OK on the surface, but they mask a lot of the story line, and the story line is probably not as positive as the numbers look,” he said. “It is a very mixed reading.”

Richard Hastings, senior retail analyst at Bernard Sands LLC, expects that this holiday season will be most heavily discounted since 2002.

“We are starting to see some cooling off of the overall consumer attitude. And that is occuring when the weather has been so bad,” he said.

Clearly consumers had much to deal with in September.

Consumers who were already juggling their budgets due to the higher cost of gasoline had to contend last month with prices that soared past $3 a gallon. And the two hurricanes, particularly Katrina, have led to hundreds of thousands of job losses, making people across the country uneasy about the economy.

The adverse economic effects of the Gulf Coast hurricanes were evident in Thursday’s report from the Labor Department, which said the number of people thrown out of work from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita rose to 363,000 last week. It reported that an additional 74,000 hurricane-related claims for unemployment benefits were filed last week, up from 70,000 the previous week.

The hurricanes’ fallout is expected to be evident in the Labor Department’s nonfarm job figures, to be released Friday. Analysts expect a drop of 172,000 jobs.

Last week, The Conference Board reported that consumer confidence suffered its biggest drop in 15 years in September. There have also been other fresh government data pointing to a slowing economy.

Wal-Mart, which had seen its sales slow amid higher gasoline prices for months, had an easier time in September. The world’s largest retailer had a 3.8 percent increase in same-store sales, matching the consensus forecast of analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call. Total sales rose 9.7 percent.

September’s business was boosted by post-hurricane demand for such staples as canned food, water and cleaning supplies and by higher-than-anticipated sales at its Sam’s club division due to increased gasoline prices. Many warehouse clubs include gas stations.

Rival Target had a 5.6 percent gain in same-store sales, better than the 4.9 percent estimate. Total sales rose 11.4 percent.

Costco Wholesale Corp. reported an 11 percent increase in same-store sales, helped by the rise in gas prices. Excluding the effects of gas price inflation, same-store sales would have been up 8 percent. Analysts had expected a 6.7 percent gain. Total sales rose 13 percent.

High end stores posted decent gains, though Nordstrom Inc. posted a more modest same-store sales increase of 4.1 percent, below the 4.4 percent estimate. Total sales rose 6.4 percent

Neiman Marcus Group Inc. had robust 9.6 percent same-store sales increase, better than the 6 percent estimate. Total sales rose 9.2 percent.

Among other department stores, Federated Department Stores Inc. had a modest 1.3 percent increase, above the 0.6 percent forecast. Total sales rose 89.6 percent, but included business from the acquisition of May Department Stores Inc. that was completed Aug.

30. Same-store sales include only Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s locations open for more than one fiscal year.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. had a 1.4 percent gain in same-store sales in its department stores, a bit below the 1.5 percent Wall Street estimate. Total sales rose 1.9 percent.

Talbots suffered a 5.1 percent drop in same-store sales, far below the 2.3 percent gain Wall Street expected. Total sales rose 1 percent.

“Our September comparable store sales results were significantly impacted by a decline in customer traffic in both our core misses and kids business, particularly during the fourth week of the month,” said Arnold B. Zetcher, chairman, president and CEO of Talbots, in a statement.

AnnTaylor suffered a 2.7 percent drop in same-store sales, worse than the 1.6 percent gain analysts expected. Total sales rose 8.7 percent. Kay Krill, president and CEO of AnnTaylor noted a low double-digit decrease in store traffic. She added that unseasonably warm weather in September hurt sales of cold weather wear.

Limited Brands had a 2 percent decline in same-store sales, matching Wall Street estimates. Total sales rose 1 percent.

Gap suffered a 6 percent same-store sales drop, though that was better than the 7.2 percent Wall Street anticipated. Total sales fell 3 percent.

Teen retailers generally fared well.

Abercrombie & Fitch fared well, reporting a 21 percent increase in same-store sales in September.Analysts had expected 16.4 percent. Total sales rose 21 percent.

But Hot Topic, Inc. struggled with a 5.6 percent decline in same-store sales, better than the 6.4 percent drop analysts expected. Total sales rose 8 percent.

American Eagle Outfitters Inc. reported on Wednesday a 13 percent increase in same-store sales for September, surpassing the 10.7 percent estimate. Total sales rose 20.9 percent.