The nation's largest retailers yesterday reported weak December sales results, confirming industry predictions that shoppers slowed their holiday spending considerably in the face of uncertain times.

Major retailers -- including Sears, Roebuck and Co., J.C. Penney Co. and May Department Stores Co. -- posted declines in sales compared with last year's holiday season.

Even retailing's unflagging champion, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., showed signs of weariness with a less-than-stellar December.

Winners included specialty apparel stores, such as the Gap Inc.

The declines reported by Sears, Penney's and May were drops in same-store sales, that is, sales from stores open at least a year. These are considered a more accurate measure of performance than overall sales, since overall sales may rise solely due to the opening of new stores.

Locally, retailing sources estimated that December same-store results ranged from declines of 10 percent to gains of only 5 percent, with only small increases in total sales at a broad cross section of department and specialty stores.

The worst news came from Richmond-based Best Products Inc., which did not report December sales results. But company officials said the catalogue showroom retailer's holiday performance was worse than other retailers and that a combination of hefty debt and increased losses could force the chain to file for bankruptcy.

"We are in the process of renegotiating our finances," said Best spokesman Ross Richardson.

"But with the disappointing Christmas, bankruptcy is a realistic option we are keeping in mind."

Rockville-based W. Bell & Co., a catalogue discounter that competes with Best, filed for bankruptcy court protection from creditors last week and said it would continue operations in the area with fewer stores and that it would continue to seek a buyer for the chain.

Other local retailers were not as gloomy.

"It has not been an easy holiday," said John Whitacre, Washington-area general manager for Nordstrom Inc., which does not release financial results.

"We did better than last year, but we worked very hard to do so."

According to Tim Finley, chairman and chief executive officer for the Baltimore-based Jos. A. Banks Clothiers, same-store sales for the men's apparel chain were nearly flat on a small overall sales gain of 2 percent to 3 percent. "Considering the tough times, we're ecstatic about that," said Finley.

The two major local department stores, the Hecht Co., which is a division of St. Louis-based May, and Woodward & Lothrop Inc., which is owned by real estate developer A. Alfred Taubman, declined comment on their December results. But sources at both stores said their results were similar to national results, indicating relatively flat same-store sales.

The disappointing sales figures came as no surprise with industry analysts and retailers predicting the bleak results as far back as the summer because of the shaky economy and the crisis in the Mideast. That outlook prompted many retailers to keep less inventory, which left them holding fewer goods after Christmas.

Analysts and retailers said they do not expect the retailing situation to get any better until at least mid-1991. "Consumer confidence is as low as I have seen it in more than 20 years," said Kenneth Macke, chairman of Dayton Hudson Corp.

Some of the best holiday results were posted by stores with a strong discount image, such as Dayton Hudson's Target division. According to most retailers, shoppers chose more inexpensive and basic items rather than big-ticket or luxury products.

To get shoppers to spend, most retailers discounted heavily, a tactic that is expected to depress earnings in the fourth quarter, during which merchants traditionally earn up to half of their annual profits.

The nation's largest retailer, Sears, reported that same-store sales fell 0.3 percent with overall sales rising 1.4 percent. Penney's same-store sales fell by the same amount, though its overall sales rose 1.5 percent. May had a 0.7 percent same-store sales drop on a 9.5 percent rise in overall sales. Toys R Us Inc., the world's largest toy retailer, reported a 6 percent decline in same-store sales on a total sales increase of 7.7 percent.

Other retailers did somewhat better. K mart Corp.'s same-store sales rose 1.2 percent with a 4.6 percent rise in overall sales. Dayton Hudson had a 2.4 percent same-store sales boost and a 15 percent sales rise overall. Wal-Mart said same-store sales advanced 6 percent -- below the company's double-digit increase of past years -- on a total sales rise of 23 percent.

The Gap's same-store sales jumped 12 percent, along with a 24 percent increase in overall sales. The Limited Inc. had a 4 percent same-store sales gain and a 19 percent overall increase. Limited was the most actively traded stock on the New York Stock Exchange yesterday, up 50 cents to $18.87 1/2.

Percent Change, for Stores Open More Than a Year



WAL-MART......... 6%


THE LIMITED....... 4%

K MART............ 1.2%


SEARS............. -0.3%

J.C. PENNEY....... -0.3%

MAY CO. .......... -0.7%

TOYS R US......... -6%

NOTE: May owns Hecht Co. in Washington

SOURCES: Company reports