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Chain Stores Come Up Short

Several retailers cut guidance after weak September sales. Wal-Mart is the lone bright spot.

Updated from 9:01 a.m. EDT

SAN FRANCISCO - Retailers reported sluggish September sales Thursday, with clothing sellers posting particular weakness and several warning of earnings shortfalls.

Many of the chains were quick to blame warmer weather for the lackluster results, saying high temperatures kept fall clothing items on the shelves. That in turn boosted inventory levels, leading to markdowns and weakened margins.

Still, the weakness was generally expected, and Wall Street yawned at the data. The S&P retail index was up 0.7% Thursday, helped by a rosier profit outlook from the sector's one bright spot in the month:


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Collectively, retailers posted a 1.4% rise in September same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year. That was less than analysts' already modest prediction for a 2.1% gain, according to Thomson Financial.

Only 39% of the companies reporting September same-store sales beat Wall Street's expectations, while the 61% missed estimates.

Among the disappointments were retailers that have been the sector's brightest stars. Giants such as


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J.C. Penney

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(JWN) - Get Nordstrom, Inc. (JWN) Report

-- all significant outperformers recently -- cut their profit views.

While weather is frequently used an excuse for less-than-stellar sales, Ken Perkins, president of the research firm Retail Metrics, says the rising temperatures indeed played a role in the weak results. He also believes retailers are also hurting from a soft economy exacerbated by the housing slump.

"I definitely think (weather) skewed the number and made it worse than it could have been," Perkins says.

The world's biggest retailer, Wal-Mart, posted a slight uptick in sales but boosted its profit forecast for the third quarter.

Wal-Mart's same-store sales rose 1.4% in the U.S., slightly shy of analysts' target for a 1.8% rise. Still, the company lifted its third-quarter earnings forecast to 66 cents to 69 cents a share from analysts' prior forecast of 62 cents to 65 cents. Analysts, on average, predicted earnings of 63 cents a share.

Wal-Mart said its apparel and home good -- two categories it has been struggling with -- remained soft. The company said unseasonably warm weather in much of the country, along with tighter consumer spending, hurt seasonal categories.

The discounter's outlook helped prop up retailer stocks, despite their overall bleak numbers.

Perkins says that since many investors were already prepared for September's results, they may simply be correcting a recent slide in retail stocks. But analyst Jharonne Martis of Thomson Financial believes the rise has more to do with anticipation over whether the

Federal Reserve

will cut interest rates.

As well, investors may be betting on a release of pent-up shopping demand in October.

Perkins predicts a possible rebound from


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, J.C. Penney and


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, assuming temperature cool off this month.

He notes, however, that there will be a last-minute scramble to push off all remaining fall merchandise off the floor.

"Holiday sets have to be in place by end of October so they have to get rid of fall merchandise by then," Perkins says. "There's not a lot of time in here to flush out a lot of the merchandise that didn't sell in September."

Shining Stars Fall

Target, which in recent years has far outpaced rival Wal-Mart in sales, said it doesn't expect to meet its full-year-earnings forecast of $3.60 a share.

The discount retailer reported a 1.2% rise in September same-store sales, below the company's lowered projection two weeks ago, which called for 1.5% to 2.5% growth. Analysts predicted a 2.2% increase.

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J.C. Penney, which has raised guidance several times this year, posted a 4.6% drop in same-store sales, worse than Wall Street's forecast for a 0.1% fall, and slashed its third-quarter earnings view. The company, blaming the unseasonable weather in much of the country, now expects earnings of $1 to $1.04 a share for the period, compared with its prior view of $1.28.

Kohl's reported a 3.2% drop in same-store sales and said third-quarter earnings should be at the low end of its prior forecast of 67 cents to 71 cents a share. Analysts expected a 3.4% decline.

The company said September sales were hit by weak demand of weather-sensitive items like long bottoms, fleece and sweaters.

Nordstrom, which has sparkled amid strength in the luxury space, also had a sales miss and slashed its guidance. The upscale department store reported 3.2% growth in same-store sales, but fell short of Wall Street's targets for 5% growth.

The company said sales didn't meet its plan, which led to higher-than-expected inventory levels. Nordstrom now sees earnings of 50 cents to 53 cents a share for the third quarter, below its prior forecast of 61 cents to 64 cents.

Richard Jaffe, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus, lowered his third quarter estimate for Nordstrom to 52 cents from 63 cents.

"A below-plan comp in the month exacerbated JWN's already inflated inventory position as inventory continued to grow faster than sales," he wrote in his research. "In an effort to bring inventories in line, significant markdowns will be required in October, pressuring 3Q margins."

Fellow luxury seller



posted a 7.7% rise in same-store sales, but that was shy of analysts' target for a 9% rise.

At department-store giant


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, same-store sales slipped 2.7%, within the company's forecast for a 1% to 3% decline, but worse than analysts' target for a 1% drop.

Holes in Clothing Sellers

Among specialty chains,


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said same-store sales fell 7%, a steeper decline than analysts' forecast for a 4.6% drop. All three of Gap's divisions came up short in September.

At the company's best performer, Banana Republic, same-store sales fell 2% against estimates for a 2.6% gain. At Gap's namesake, same-store sales dropped 10%, far greater than analysts' expectation of a 3.9% decline. And at Old Navy, same-store sales fell by 8%, compared with Wall Street's prediction for a 7.3% decline.

Sabrina Simmons, vice president for finance at Gap, tried to put a positive spin on September's results.

"Our merchandise margins in September were in line with last year and we are comfortable with our inventory levels, which we continue to manage tightly heading into the important holiday season," she said.

Limited Brands


said same-store sales fell 4% while analysts had estimated a 1.5% decline. The company said it now expects third-quarter earnings ranging from break-even to 4 cents a share, compared with its prior forecast for a profit of 4 cents a share.


Ann Taylor


, which lately had been a laggard, same-store sales increased slightly in September, inching up 0.5% vs. analysts' estimates for a 1.5% drop.

Among teen retailers,



posted a 1.3% gain in same-store sales, beating analysts' estimates of a 0.7% drop. The company also reiterated its third-quarter earnings guidance of 43 cents to 45 per share.

But at

Abercrombie & Fitch


, same-store sales fell 4%, well worse than estimates for a 1.4% decline.

Abercrombie's disappointing numbers joined those from

American Eagle

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, which on Wednesday posted a same-store sales decline of 2% and cut its third-quarter earnings projection.