Retailers Report Weak Sales in December

New York City An already weak holiday shopping season turned out to be even worse than expected for many of the nation’s retailers, who on Thursday reported disappointing sales results for December. The poor performance raised more concerns about consumer spending, and caused many retailers to lower their fourth-quarter earnings forecasts.

Clouding this year’s holiday picture was a shift in the retail reporting calendar, making some results look worse than they really were, after artificially inflating November results. The Thanksgiving holiday also came earlier this year, shifting some key holiday shopping days away from December and into November.
Bad weather in certain regions also kept some potential shoppers at home. December 2007 was the third-coldest of the past 15 years, and the snowiest since 2000, according to weather-tracking firm Planalytics.

The sluggish results could be seen across all retail categories. But department stores and specialty apparel retailers, with a few notable exceptions, were hit the hardest.

Among the few bright spots was Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which posted results that exceeded Wall Street expectations, as it benefited from shoppers trading down to cheaper stores amid higher gas prices and a slumping housing market.

The chain posted a 2.4% increase in same-store sales, but said that its fourth-quarter results will be “pressured by higher interest expense” compared to last year. Rival chain Target Corp., however, saw its monthly sales rise by only 0.1%.

Costco Wholesale Corp. also topped analysts’ sales estimates, with a 7% increase in same-store sales. And Aeropostale Inc. said its same-store sales jumped 12.2% in December, soaring past Wall Street’s expectations.

Macy’s posted a 7.9% drop in same-store sales, lower than the 6.5% decline anticipated. For the November-December period combined, Macy’s same-store sales were down 1.1%.

J.C. Penney Inc. said its December same-store sales fell 7.5%, hurt by weaker sales of big-ticket home items and jewelry.

Nordstrom Inc. reported that same-store sales fell 4%, while Saks inched up 0.8% in December.

The Limited Inc. posted an 8% drop in same-store sales. Based on weak sales, it said it is likely that fourth-quarter earnings will fall toward the low-to-midpoint of its previously announced projections.

AnnTaylor posted a 9.4% decline in same-store sales, much larger than the 1.9% drop analysts were expecting. It cut its fourth-quarter earnings estimates.

Maternity apparel retailer Mothers Work Inc. reported that same-store sales fell 7.6%, worse than the 0.5% analyst estimate.

Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. posted a 2.8% decline in same-store sales, a little bit better than the 3.1% forecast.

Chico’s FAS’ same-store sales fell 13.7% on soft demand at its Chico’s brand and White House/Black Market stores.

Among the bright spots in specialty retailing was Aeropostale Inc., whose same-store sales jumped 12.2% in December, and The Buckle Inc. whose same-store sales surged 18.7%.