Back-To-School Sales Disappoint

Back to school, students and father at store with sales person AP

The August start of the back-to-school shopping season was a disappointment for major retailers, giving the industry a third straight month of listless sales. Higher gasoline prices and consumers' ongoing worries about jobs contributed to the poor showing.

As storeowners reported their monthly results Thursday, the discouraging news came from all sectors, from discounters and wholesale club operators like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. to mall-based apparel and department stores such as Limited Brands and May Department Stores Inc.

"Overall, this doesn't look so good," said Ken Perkins, president and research analyst at RetailMetrics LLC, a Boston-based independent research company. "There are number of different factors that are coming together to dampen consumer spending."

Meanwhile, another government report said workers' productivity increased at an annual rate of 2.5 percent in the spring, the smallest gain since late 2002, reflecting the economy's slowdown.

The new reading on second-quarter productivity from the Labor Department was slower than some analysts were forecasting.

A major factor restraining the increase in productivity in the second quarter was a big slowdown in overall production. Gross domestic product, which measures the value of all goods and services produced within the United States, rose at an annual rate of 2.8 percent in the second quarter, compared with a 4.5 percent growth rate in the first quarter.

Separately, the number of new people signing up for unemployment benefits rose for the second week in a row, reflecting the lingering impact of Hurricane Charley, the department said in a second report.

President Bush and his Democratic rival, John Kerry, have sparred frequently over the economy and the availability of jobs. The economy has lost 1.1 million jobs since Mr. Bush took office.

Retailers found low-to-middle-income shoppers last month were more frugal in response to higher gas prices and grocery bills. Americans are also worried about their jobs — on Tuesday, the Conference Board reported a larger-than-expected decline in consumer confidence, and attributed the slide to concerns about job prospects.

"The consumer senses a lot of uncertainty, whether it is security concerns, the presidential election and gas prices. The overall economic picture remains uncertain," said John Morris, senior retail analyst at Harris Nesbitt.

Stores also blamed Hurricane Charley, which swept through Florida last month, forcing stores to close. And sales were affected by technical factors, a late Labor Day weekend, which will come a week later than a year ago and will push sales into the September reporting period, and the fact that year-earlier results were boosted by the government's one-time child care tax credits.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales preliminary sales tally of 55 retailers was up a meager 1.0 percent, missing its already reduced forecast for a 1.5 percent to 2 percent increase. That will be the weakest performance since March 2003, when merchants reported a 0.2 percent decline. The tally is based on what the industry calls same-store sales, or sales at store opened at least a year. Those sales are considered the best indicator of a retailer's performance.

Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, which had muted its August sales outlook in mid-month, posted a slim 0.5 percent increase in same-store sales. Analysts polled by Thomson First Call expected a 1.5 percent gain. Total sales at Wal-Mart rose 8.8 percent.

Based on its disappointing sales, Wal-Mart said it believes third-quarter profits will be at the low end of the 52 cent to 54 cent range. Analysts expect 53 cents per share.

Target Corp. had a 1.8 percent gain in same-store sales, a bit better than the 1.2 percent that analysts forecast. Total sales rose 8.3 percent.

Costco reported a 4 percent gain in same-store sales, missing Wall Street's 7.3 percent forecast. Total sales were up 7 percent.

Most mall-based apparel stores also struggled.

Limited Brands suffered a 2 percent drop in same-store sales, worse than the 0.3 percent projected decline. Total sales slipped 0.3 percent.

Talbots had a 4.6 percent drop in same-store sales, a slightly better result than the 5.3 percent Wall Street forecast. Total sales fell 1 percent.

Gap Inc. had a 1 percent decrease in same-store sales, better than the 2.7 percent decline forecast by Wall Street. Total sales were up 1 percent.

Among teen retailers, American Eagle Outfitters Inc. continued its strong sales streak, announcing on Wednesday a 23.9 percent increase in same-store sales. That was well above the 13.9 percent increase that analysts expected. Total sales were up 34 percent.

But rival Abercrombie & Fitch recorded a 5 percent decline in same-store sales, worse than the 6.5 percent decrease that Wall Street forecast. Total sales increased 11 percent

High-end department stores, whose business is less vulnerable to the rising energy prices, again beat expectations. Nordstrom Inc. had a 7.2 percent gain in same-store sales, surpassing Wall Street 4.7 percent estimates. Total sales rose 8.2 percent.

Neiman Marcus Group had a 14.7 percent increase, beating analysts' forecasts of 10.1 percent. Total sales advanced 14.8 percent.

Among mid-range department stores, J.C. Penney Stores Co. Inc. reported a solid 3.8 percent gain in same-store sales in its department store business but missed analysts' forecasts of a 4.8 percent gain. Total sales rose 4.3 percent.

May reported a 5.9 percent decline in same-store sales, worse than the 1.2 percent estimate. Total sales were up 10.5 percent.

Federated Department Stores Inc. had a 2.4 percent drop in same-store sales, missing forecasts for a 0.2 percent gain. Total sales declined 2.7 percent.

Selected same-store sales for August for other leading retailers:
  • Big Lots Inc., same-store sales declined 2.0 percent; total sales rose 2.9 percent.

  • Kohl's Corp., same-store sales declined 0.7 percent; total sales rose 14 percent.

  • ShopKo Stores Inc., same-store sales were down 0.2 percent; total sales fell 0.5 percent.
  • Dan Collins

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