Sales at catalogue giant Lands' End dropped by a steep 18 percent in the first five weeks of the fourth quarter, a decline that was much bigger than expected.

News of the sales shortfall today sent the company's shares plummeting, and a number of investment firms downgraded its stock.

Lands' End had previously warned Wall Street that its sales would likely drop because it was reducing catalogue circulation and the number of pages within its catalogues. But the 18 percent decline in sales in the five-week period ending Dec. 3 was far greater than expected.

"Obviously it's risky to trim your catalogue circulation, and the risk there is the customers will just simply not order if they don't get the advertising," said Derek Leckow, an analyst with Barrington Research Associates in Chicago.

Lands' End also attributed the drop-off to fewer liquidation and promotional sales compared with a year ago. In addition, the company sent out its clearance catalogue in the third quarter this year, rather than in fourth quarter as it did a year ago.

Lands' End was also stung by warmer-than-normal weather in November, which dampened demand for winter merchandise, such as wool sweaters and heavy coats.

Investors responded to the news by pushing shares down $14.12 1/2, to $43.62 1/2, on the New York Stock Exchange.

Investment firms Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Janney Montgomery Scott Inc. downgraded the company's stock.

Lands' End is expected to report its holiday sales Jan. 13.

The company has been struggling to get its business back on track. A year ago, sagging sales and profits forced the company to lay off workers and oust its chief executive and head of sales.

The company has been scaling back its catalogue circulation, which grew by 22 percent during the past two fiscal years, partly due to an effort to clear excess inventory.

At the same time, Lands' End is stepping up its Internet business, trying to shift customers from buying strictly from the catalogues to shopping online, Leckow said.

"I think that they're going to show better results next year," Leckow said.