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Update: Wal-Mart Meets, J.C. Penney Beats Expectations

Updated from 9:59 a.m. EDT

A number of retailers, including discount giant Wal-Mart (WMT), acknowledged Tuesday that an apparent slowdown in consumer spending, spurred by higher fuel prices and a lackluster stock market, tempered earnings performances in the latest quarter.

Wal-Mart (WMT) attracted much of the retail attention Tuesday, matching Wall Street's earnings estimates with a 6% rise in third-quarter profits. Shares of Wal-Mart finished Tuesday regular trading up $1.56, or 3%, at $46.88.

Wal-Mart posted earnings of $1.4 billion, or 31 cents a share, compared with $1.3 billion, or 29 cents a share, in the comparable quarter last year, in line with analysts' expectations, according to First Call/Thomson Financial, a research firm.

While the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer recorded sales of $45.7 billion, a 13% increase from $40.4 billion a year ago, the company's chief executive, Lee Scott, noted that "a challenging retail environment" threatened to restrain growth.

Elevated energy prices, which boost the cost of fueling cars and heating homes, along with a string of interest rate hikes, a trend that makes borrowing money more expensive, tend to dampen spending enthusiasm. The Department of Commerce reported Tuesday that retail sales have slowed a bit, growing approximately 0.4% in October, excluding sales of cars and trucks.

J.C. Penney Reports $30M Loss

At the same time, department store chain J.C. Penney (JCP) reported a loss of $30 million, or 15 cents a share, compared with a profit of $142 million, or 51 cents a share, a year ago.

Excluding restructuring charges and other items, J.C. Penney posted a loss of $23 million, or 12 cents a share, beating analysts' latest projections of a loss of 14 cents a share.

J.C. Penney, whose profits suffered from higher markdowns at its stores, said earlier this month that it expected a third-quarter loss between 10 and 15 cents a share. At the time, analysts polled by First Call had anticipated a loss of 5 cents a share.

The Plano, Texas-based company, which recently brought in a new chairman and chief executive, Allen Questrom, to turn itself around, said revenue dipped 1.2% to $7.7 billion from $7.8 billion.

Shares of J.C. Penney ended up 50 cents, or 5%, at $11.13.

Hard Times for Other Retailers

Last week, Kmart (KM), the discount retailer, posted a third-quarter loss of $67 million, meeting Wall Street's forecast, as inventory liquidation cut into regular sales. In the year-ago period, Kmart reported a profit of $27 million.

Ames Department Stores (AMES), Gap (GPS) and Lands' End (LE) also recently reported a decline in third-quarter profits.

And while Home Depot (HD) on Tuesday reported a 13% increase in third-quarter earnings and a 17% rise in overall sales, the home improvement retailer said it remained cautious about growth in the fourth quarter.

"The strong retail sales environment and higher gross margin rate experienced in 1999 pressure our ability to generate earnings growth this year at the strong rates we have experienced in the last several years," Arthur Blank, Home Depot's chief executive, said in a statement.

But the company still expects earnings-per-share growth between 23% and 25% next year. Shares of Home Depot ended up $1.81, or 5%, at $39.19.

TJX Companies (TJX), the retailer that operates T.J. Maxx and Marshalls stores among others, echoed its competitors, referring to a "difficult retail environment," but it managed to beat Wall Street's earnings target with a 4% rise in third-quarter profits.

TJX reported net income of $158.3 million, or 56 cents a diluted share, compared with $151.7 million, or 48 cents a share, in the year-ago period. Analysts expected the company to earn 55 cents a share in the quarter, according to First Call.

However, TJX closed down $3.81, or 14%, at $24.31, after the Framingham, Mass.-based company warned that it expects fourth-quarter earnings of 50 cents a share, 3 cents lower than analysts' estimates, because of weaker-than-anticipated November sales.

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