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Retail Reports Look Spotty

Updated from 9:05 a.m. EST

Hopes outran reality in the first leg of the holiday shopping season, according to November sales results reported by retail chains Thursday.

Retail Metrics reported that its same-store sales index, combining results from more than 60 retailers, posted an overall gain of 3.7% in November over the same month last year, which fell a bit short of the firm's expectations for a 3.9% increase.

Same-store sales, or comps, serve as a key measure of a retailer's performance, covering sales at locations that have been open for at least one year.

"We would characterize this as a bit disappointing, given some of the favorable trends that were emerging on the macro front in October and November, as well as the momentum retailers had on the surprise front," said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics.

A string of positive economic reports, including a sharp rebound in consumer confidence in November, has Wall Street licking its chops heading into the Thanksgiving weekend. Perkins noted that the shortfall in the index was its first downside surprise since July, breaking a three-month streak of outperformance.

The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart (WMT), said its U.S. same-store sales were up 4.3% in November. That includes a 7% increase at its Sam's Club chain and a 3.8% jump at its namesake stores.

In December, the discount giant expects same-store sales growth to slow to a gain anywhere from 2% to 4%.

Its chief rival, Target (TGT), said its November same-store sales rose 2.6%, meeting its lowered forecast. The discounter lowered expectations halfway through the month from its previous guidance for an increase of 4% to 6%.

Costco (COST) said its November comps rose 6%, falling short of Wall Street's expectations. The discount warehouse chain said its sales were hurt by the strengthening U.S. dollar. Declining oil prices also took a toll, as prices at Costco's gas stations came down.

Kohl's (KSS) reported an unexpected decline, with its comps down 0.1% for the month. The mid-priced department store chain did say that sales were strong over the post-Thanksgiving weekend.

Federated Department Stores (FD), the department store empire that's in the midst of a complex merger with its former rival, said its comps dropped 3.4% on weak demand. Analysts had expected a gain.

J.C. Penney (JCP) provided some upbeat news, reporting a 3.6% gain in November comps. That exceeded estimates for a smaller increase.

Gap (GPS) had a weak month as expected, with same-store sales down 4%. That figure was a bit better than analysts expected.

Limited Brands (LTD) also outperformed. The specialty retail company, which operates Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works and other chains, reported its comps up 5% for the month. It sees December same-store sales growth in the low- to mid-single digits.

Upscale department store chain Nordstrom (JWN) said its comps rose 2.8% for the month, weaker than expected.

Strong results from teen fashion maven Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) were in line with expectations. The clothing chain said its November comps were up 23% in November.

Abercrombie's results brought on a sigh of relief on Wall Street after its rival, American Eagle Outfitters (AEOS), disappointed analysts. The company set off alarm bells Wednesday by lowering its fourth-quarter earnings forecast after same-store sales rose only 1.7% in November. Wall Street had been expecting a double-digit increase from the longtime investor favorite.

American Eagle now expects to earn between 70 cents and 72 cents a share for the quarter, down from a previous estimate of 73 cents to 75 cents. Analysts on Wall Street were expecting earnings of 74 cents a share, according to consensus estimates reported by Thomson First Call.

Also on Wednesday, Aeropostale (ARO) bolstered hopes for holiday spending. Its same-store sales, or sales at stores open for at least a year, rose 7.3% for the month, compared with the same month last year. Wall Street was expecting a decline.

The company said its results got a boost from the post-Thanksgiving shopping weekend, when it saw same-store sales up more than 30% over last year.

"Our gross margins for the month were in line with our plan and we continue to make progress on clearing through our excess inventory position," the company said.

Hot Topic (HOTT), which has had trouble connecting with the counterculture lately, said its same-store sales were flat in November because of increased promotions.

Newly public Citi Trends (CTRN) blew past estimates with a 26% gain in same-store sales. The clothing chain, specializing in urban fashions, said it saw "increased customer traffic following hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma." Those increases more than offset the store closings that occurred at Citi Trends as a result of the storm.

Also, Zumiez (ZUMZ) said its same-store sales were up 18.8% for the month, also beating Wall Street's expectations. Zumiez sells clothing and accessories related to extreme sports, such as skateboarding and biking.

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