November sales disappoint retailers

Customers pick through clothes at Forever 21 at Potomac Mills on the day after Thanksgiving.
Customers pick through clothes at Forever 21 at Potomac Mills on the day after Thanksgiving. (Richard A. Lipski/washington Post)
Buy Photo
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

The hordes of Black Friday shoppers weren't enough to save retailers from dispiriting November sales, according to company data released Thursday.

About 30 national chains reported monthly sales at established stores on Thursday, a key measure of the industry's health. Several chains, including Costco and J.C. Penney, performed worse than analysts expected. Retailers said that unseasonably warm weather dampened sales at the beginning of the month. In addition, shoppers saved their cash for post-Thanksgiving deals.

"It was a month that disappointed us and, I think, the industry," said Michael Niemira, chief economist for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group.

The ICSC showed that same-store sales -- which measures results at stores open at least a year -- fell 0.3 percent in November from a year ago, reversing two months of solid growth. Department stores fared the worst, plunging 4.5 percent. At Macy's, where sales dropped 6.1 percent, executives said they expect some of November's sales to shift to December because of changes to its promotional schedule and because December includes an extra selling day. Still, the company acknowledged that traffic the weekend after Thanksgiving was weaker than expected despite a strong Black Friday.

The post-Thanksgiving shopping bonanza is the traditional kickoff for holiday sales, and the November results gave the first hint of how the crucial season will fare. Frank Badillo, a senior economist at Retail Forward, said the figures show consumers are beginning to loosen their purse strings -- but only for a deal. About 43 percent of shoppers plan to spend less this holiday season, a smaller percentage than last year but substantially more than in 2007, according to the consulting firm. Badillo said consumers are holding fast to their newfound frugality even as some sectors of the economy begin to show signs of life.

"Those are the behaviors we've seen ingrained over past months," he said.

Discount stores once again performed better than other retail sectors, pulling off a 0.6 percent increase in November sales, according to ICSC. TJX, which owns TJ Maxx and Marshall's, jumped 8 percent, while Kohl's sales rose 3.3 percent.

But Target reported that sales declined 1.5 percent in November, below the cheap chic retailer's expectations. Still, chief executive Gregg Steinhafel said the number of transactions increased and online sales were strong, encouraging signs for the remainder of the holiday season.

November sales results for the entire retail industry, which are expected on Dec. 11, could paint a rosier picture, Niemira said. Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, does not report monthly same-store sales and has been a strong performer in the economic downturn. In addition, Thursday's results are not a good measure of online retailers, which have held up better than their bricks-and-mortar counterparts. Electronics chains such as Best Buy, among the top Black Friday shopping destinations, also were not captured.

"Lots of unknowns remain," Niemira said.

Still, Stephen Hoch, director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, said retailers have braced themselves for lackluster sales. After last year's dismal holiday season, the industry shuttered poorly performing stores, slashed jobs and reduced inventory to cut costs. That should allow stores to preserve their profit margins even if consumer demand remains weak, he said.

"Most retailers are going to say the top line stinks, but we did okay with the bottom line," Hoch said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company