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Retail sales rise a weak 1.6% in November

Analysts had expected a 3.3% year-over-year increase. The disappointing sales figure is blamed in part on the effects of Superstorm Sandy.

November 29, 2012|By Shan Li, Los Angeles Times
  • Tiffany & Co. said its third-quarter net income fell nearly 30% because of high material costs and greater-than-expected taxes. Above, a store in Boston.
Tiffany & Co. said its third-quarter net income fell nearly 30% because… (Elise Amendola, Associated…)

Despite robust sales on Black Friday, the nation's retailers reported weak sales in November, raising concerns about whether merchants can make up enough ground in the coming weeks of the crucial holiday season.

Hit hard by Superstorm Sandy and its aftermath, major retailers such as Macy's Inc., Kohl's Corp. and Target Corp. reported sales declines. Luxury retailers saw troubles as well. Tiffany & Co. said Thursday that its third-quarter profit plunged 30%, and department store chain Nordstrom Inc. saw sales drop 1.1% in November.

At the Target store in West Hollywood, some shoppers said that despite improvements in the economy, they had learned to rein in Christmas spending over the last few years and had no plans to change.

"Lots of people are getting hugs," said Brooke Seguin, 31, of Los Feliz, who recently spent $40 on a knife set and two necklaces for herself and friends. "I'm going to make some gifts this year."

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The theater producer said there was no longer pressure among friends to give everyone presents that cost a certain amount. Therefore she planned to spend "way below" what was once her typical holiday budget of $1,000.

Although Black Friday set records for sales and shopper traffic, analysts said that doesn't necessarily guarantee a great holiday season, when retailers can rake in as much as 40% of their annual sales. There were signs that shoppers who splurged over the Thanksgiving weekend went for the best bargains, industry watchers said, and now may be done with their Christmas spending.

"A lot of retailers are using Sandy as a very convenient excuse to dismiss their poor sales performance. Not all these retailers have all their stores situated in just the Northeast," said Britt Beemer, a retail expert at America's Research Group. "A lot of retailers are going to have to admit that Black Friday, as incredible as it was," favored merchants offering enormous discounts.

Thursday's tally of 17 retailers showed that major chains posted a 1.6% increase in retail sales in November compared with the same month a year earlier, according to Thomson Reuters. That was below analyst expectations of a 3.3% rise.

There was a broad mix of stores among the month's top performers. Discount retailer Costco Wholesale Corp. reported a 6% jump in sales. Limited Brands Inc., the parent company of Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works, said sales rose 5%. And Gap Inc., which has been showing signs of a turnaround, posted a 3% gain.

Other retailers posted weak results. Kohl's saw sales decline 5.6%. Struggling teen clothier Wet Seal Inc., which recently went through a board shake-up after more than a year of falling sales, reported that its sales slipped 5.4%.

Macy's, which reported a 0.7% decline, blamed Sandy for its poor performance. The retailer had previously said it was forced to close about 200 of its stores during and after the storm.

"We were not able to overcome the weak start to the month," Chief Executive Terry J. Lundgren said in a statement, adding that Macy's remained "on track to deliver a very strong sales performance in the fourth quarter."

Tiffany, which does not report monthly sales figures, said Thursday that its third-quarter revenue rose 4%. However, its profit dropped nearly 30% because of high material costs and greater-than-expected taxes. Shares of the jewelry company fell $3.93, or 6.2%, to $59.80.

Results in the Thomson Reuters survey are based on sales at stores open at least a year, known as same-store sales. These are considered an important measure of a retailer's health because they exclude the effect of store openings and closings.

Some industry watchers were optimistic about the remaining holiday season, pointing to rising home prices and a rallying stock market as reasons that shoppers would open their wallets in the coming weeks. The Conference Board reported this week that consumer confidence jumped to its highest level in almost five years.

"We had a month that was not typical given Sandy and how it impacted quite an extreme part of our country," said Matthew Rahn, a principal in the retail practice at A.T. Kearney. "But overall, given what we saw over the holiday weekend, it's going to be quite a positive holiday season this year."

Analysts also noted that the November results failed to show the effect of Cyber Monday, the first workday after Thanksgiving weekend, when online merchants offer a variety of bargains and saw record sales.

Robust sales on Cyber Monday will give December a boost instead, said Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. He also said purchases made through layaway, which is available at many retailers this holiday season, will be included in the December tally.

Retailers may get a boost from shoppers like Early Cursell, 35, who said she is ready to splurge this Christmas because her husband, who works as a security guard, has been getting a lot of overtime lately. Browsing at the West Hollywood Target, the homemaker said she planned to spend $2,000, double last year's budget, on gifts for her children and extended family.

"I'm just feeling more confident about our finances," said Cursell, a Los Angeles resident. "With four kids — you want to get them nice things for the holidays."

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