NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -
The verdict on how retailers fared in the first month of the crucial holiday shopping season: disappointing, given all the hype about a robust start.
U.S. chain stores on Thursday reported same-store sales -- or sales at stores open at least a year -- for November, the first month of the pivotal two-month holiday shopping period which can account for as much as 50 percent of some retailers' annual sales and profits.
"I am surprised that the November sales numbers are just OK," said Ken Perkins, retail analyst and president of research firm RetailMetrics.
Of the 63 retailers he tracks, Perkins said about 44 percent fell short of his expectations. The RetailMetrics Same-Store Sales Index had forecast a 3.9 percent gain in November sales. So far, the overall index was up 3.7 percent, Perkins said.
"It's the first time since July that the index has missed expectations," he said.
Separately, Thomson Financial analyst David Crowell said the firm's aggregate sales tally for the month fell short of expectations, coming in at a 3.6 percent increase. Analysts for the firm had forecast 3.9 percent growth for the 52 retailers tracked, well above the 1.6 percent gain reported in November 2004.
Many retailers, especially the department store chains, were slashing prices two weeks earlier than usual leading up to this year's Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
"The department store chains are the culprit, with the exception of J.C. Penney," said Perkins. "There was also weakness in the high-end arena. I think consumer electronics sellers drew traffic away from department stores and luxury."
Industry watchers attributed the early discounts partly to nervousness on the part of retailers that consumers' spending ability could fade before they even reach the peak of the holiday shopping period.
Perkins said he's not sure that the early promotions ate into Black Friday sales. "It's hard to gauge that," he said. "However, like every year, I think a lot of people are holding out for better bargains closer to Christmas."
Jolly November for Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart's aggressive gameplan for the holidays appears to have worked. The discounter posted November sales that were at the high-end of its earlier forecast as bargain hunters grabbed deals on gift items including electronics, toys and video games.
Wal-Mart (Research), the No.1 retailer, delivered what it promised for the month -- a 4.3 percent gain in sales at its stores open at least a year, which also included crucial Black Friday totals.
The monthly same-store sales gain was at the high-end of its estimated 3 to 5 percent gain for the month.
The result should come as a relief to the discounter given the dismal 0.7 percent comparable sales it logged for the same period last year.
Consumers punished Wal-Mart last November after it failed to deliver the deep discounts that shoppers have come to expect from it each year at the start of the November-December gift buying season.
Eager to redeem itself with consumers and investors, the company pledged that it would be "very aggressive" with holiday pricing this year.
In a pre-recorded sales update, Wal-Mart said 10 million shoppers hit its stores the day after Thanksgiving during its "blitz" hours of 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. The blitz period offered early doorbuster deals that included an HP laptop computer for as low as $378.
For December, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company expects sales to increase from two to four percent.
A few blips mar a mostly positive November for retailers
Discounter Target (Research) logged a 2.6 percent sales gain, in-line with its lowered forecast for sales growth of between two to three percent.
Wholesale club Costco (Research) posted a six percent same-store sales gain last month, falling well below analysts' forecasts for a 7.9 percent gain.
Among the specialty merchants, teen clothier Aeropostale (Research) logged a 7.3 percent sales jump versus a 4.1 percent gain last year. Sales at Hot Topic (Research) were flat compared to last November but beat analysts' expectations for a 4.2 percent decline. Sales at Abercrombie & Fitch (Research) rocketed 23 percent, sliding past Wall Street expectations.
However, industry watchers point out that the better-than-expected numbers also reflect easy comparisons from last year.
Limited Brands (Research), parent of the Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works chains, posted a five percent sales increase, while No. 1 apparel chain Gap Inc. (Research) posted a four percent drop in its monthly same-store sales.
One big surprise came from troubled home furnishings chain Pier 1 Imports (Research). The company ended a drought of 21 consecutive months of same-store sales declines by posting a 1.9 percent sales gain last month versus forecasts for a decline.
Still, the company warned that it expects a third-quarter loss of between eight cents and 10 cents per share and its comparable sales to decline 6.5 percent for the quarter, and a tax provision charge of two-to-three cents per share.
Analysts on average had expected the company to post a profit of five cents a share for the quarter, according to First Call.
In the department store sector, J.C. Penney (Research)'s sales grew a better-than-expected 3.6 percent. But sales for sectormate Kohl's (Research) dipped 0.1 percent and there was a 3.4 percent slide for Macy's and Bloomingdale's parent Federated Department Stores (Research). Federated's monthly sales included sales from May Department Stores which Federated acquired in August.
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