Nervous shoppers pull back

Wal-Mart and Costco's sales in September helped by consumers' shift to low-priced groceries. Clothing and department store sales slump as Americans cut back on everything else.

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By Parija Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Monthly reports from Wal-Mart, Costco, J.C. Penney and other big retail chains confirm that American consumers are now sticking to buying necessities - at bargain prices - and cutting back on most other discretionary products.

"Consumer debt levels are high, access to credit has evaporated and the job market is weak," said Ken Perkins, president of sales tracker Retail Metrics.

In this environment, Perkins said consumers "will try to stretch every dollar and they aren't going to do that at department stores."

Wal-Mart Stores (WMT, Fortune 500), the No. 1 retailer reported Wednesday that same-store sales in September rose 2.4%, helped by gains in grocery and clothing purchases. Same-store sales are a key measure of retailers' sales performance at stores open at least a year.

However, Wal-Mart's result was still at the low-end of of its own forecast of a 2% to 3% increase for the month as its mostly paycheck-to-paycheck customers continued to pull back on other discretionary purchases.

For October, the company said it expects same-store sales to increase between 1% and 2%.

Wholesale-club operator Costco (COST, Fortune 500) reported a 7% jump in its same-store sales last month while another value-price chain, BJ's Wholesale Club (BJ, Fortune 500), posted a strong 10.4% jump in its same-store sales.

Elsewhere, the sales results painted a bleak picture for retailers and overall consumer sentiment.

Department stores were among the worst-performing merchants last month. Mid-priced seller J.C. Penney (JCP, Fortune 500) posted a 12.4% drop in September same-store sales and Dillards also suffered a 12% sales decline last month.

Among clothing chains, sales at Pacific Sunwear fell 5% and Wet Seal reported a 7.5% sales decline. Luxury sellers took a big hit. Saks posted a 10.9% sales drop last month whole sales at Nordstrom fell 9.6%.

Thomson Reuters expects total sales in September for 35 of the nation's largest chains it tracks to have increased 1.5%, in-line with last year's gain for the same period.

So far, 20 of the 35 retailers it tracks have reported their same-store sales. The firm said 74% missed their sales estimates, 21% beat and 5% met forecasts.

Holiday shopping season in peril

"The financial crisis that's taken place is clearly hurting an already soft spending environment," Perkins said. "Today's sales numbers provide a clear-cut warning signal that we're heading for a very difficult holiday sales season," he said.

That's a huge problem for retailers given that the gift-buying months of November and December account for more than half of merchants profits and sales for the year.

"From here on, it will be a fight for survival for most retailers," he said, adding that he doesn't expect a pick-up in retail sales until late 2009.

Michael Englund, economist with ActionEconomics, agreed. "These numbers provide clear evidence of a real impact of credit contraction on consumers and on the economy," he said.

"We're heading for a pretty ugly fourth quarter," he said. "When it comes to Christmas sales, we could see no year-over-year growth." To top of page

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