Wal-Mart Sounds Alarm Over Poor Sales

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. issued a sobering warning for the holiday shopping season Thursday, predicting its December same-store sales gain would be no better than 1 percent.

The news, coupled with Wal-Mart's expected announcement that it suffered its first same-store decline in more than 10 years during November, came as U.S. retailers reported an overall mixed sales performance for the month. Same-store sales reflect business at stores open at least a year and are the industry standard for measuring a retailer's strength.

Wal-Mart's disappointment was a sharp contrast with results from Target Corp., which beat Wall Street forecasts, and Federated Department Stores Inc., which far exceeded expectations.

Other retailers had mixed sales. J.C. Penney Co. and Costco Wholesale Corp. both fell short of Wall Street projections.

Also, the Commerce Department reported Thursday that consumer spending increased by 0.2 percent in October, the best showing in three months. Spending had fallen by 0.2 percent in September and posted only a slight 0.1 percent rise in August.

The timing of Wal-Mart's news could not have been worse for the world's largest retailer, coming at the start of the holiday shopping season. While many retailers had a strong Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Wal-Mart had warned Saturday that its November sales would be weaker than expected.

Wal-Mart reported a 0.1 percent dip in same-store sales. Including a drop in gasoline revenues from its Sam's Club division, which Wal-Mart did not include in its calculation, same store-sales fell 0.3 percent.

Wal-Mart has struggled in recent months on a mix of problems, including the fact that its lower-income customers were hurt by soaring gas prices. But the company's lackluster sales have persisted even as the cost of gas eased, an indication that shoppers are turning away from merchandise like apparel, and sticking with basics like food and consumer products.

"This is pretty discouraging," said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics LLC, a research company in Swampscott, Massachusetts. But he added that Wal-Mart's weak sales will not be a harbinger of a broad based weakness across the retail sector."

Wal-Mart's discount stores suffered a 0.5 percent decline, while Sam's Clubs had a 2.0 percent increase.

One of the company's problems has been its inability to understand what its customers are looking for. It filled its clothing racks with too many trendy items like skinny jeans that shoppers just did not want.

Despite Wal-Mart's problems, many other retailers do have hopes for a strong season. Sales during the Thanksgiving weekend rose a respectable 2.8 percent, according to the research firm ShopperTrak RCT Corp.

Still, there are concerns about how confident consumers are going into the season. The latest measure of confidence by the Conference Board fell during November, and reports of job cuts and buyouts at companies including Pfizer Inc. and Ford Motor Co. could make consumers even more uneasy.

Discounter Target said same-store sales rose 5.9 percent, topping forecasts of a 5.7 percent gain, as consumers bought electronics and health care and consumer products

Federated said same-store sales rose 8.5 percent in November, exceeding its own forecast and surpassing Wall Street's 4.8 percent projection. It also raised its December sales forecast.

Penney said same-store sales rose 1.4 percent, helped by strong sales of jewelry, children's goods and home products. But the results fell short of the 3.7 percent forecast of analysts polled by Thomson Financial.

Costco Wholesale Corp. reported a 5 percent gain in same-store sales, below the 5.7 percent estimate.

Nordstrom Inc. had a 5.4 percent gain in same-store sales, matching Wall Street expectations.

Limited Brands Inc. had a 12 percent increase in same-store sales, exceeding the 7.8 percent estimate.

Teen retailers generally did well. Wet Seal Inc. had a 5.5 percent same-store gain, beating the 4.0 percent estimate. But Bebe Stores' 5.8 percent gain fell below the 7.9 percent estimate from Wall Street.

American Eagle Outfitters Inc. said Wednesday its same-store sales rose 14 percent in November from year-ago levels, boosted by a strong start to the holiday shopping season. The results were in line with Wall Street's estimate for a 14.8 percent gain.