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Mixed Message From Retail

Gap affirms its forecast, but Target offers words of caution.
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Update since 10:09 AM EST

SAN FRANCISCO -- The nation's retailers saw mixed results in November, with heavy Black Friday promotions drawing hoards of shoppers, who then quickly disbanded once the sales events were over.

November kicked off the official start of the holiday shopping season, the busiest time of the year for retailers. Many department stores benefited from a calendar shift, which gave them an extra week of sales for the month. But those same chains will be hurt with one less week of sales in December.

Collectively, retailers posted a 4% increase in November same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year. That beat analysts' estimates for a 3.3% gain.

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Of the 43 chains reporting, 44% topped estimates while 51% missed and 5% met estimates, according to Thomson Financial.

Standout performers include big favorites

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

,

Target

(TGT) - Get Report

, and

Costco

(COST) - Get Report

, each posting better than expected sales growth.

The laggard list included apparel duds like

Chico's

(CHS) - Get Report

and

Limited

(LTD)

.

The beginning of November showed promise thanks to early promotions by retailers to create traffic, says Ken Perkins, president of the research firm Retail Metrics. Black Friday, as the day after Thanksgiving is known, generated even more enthusiasm, with so-called doorbuster items enticing shoppers to line up in front of stores at pre-dawn hours.

The following week, however, dampened the shopping spirit as prices went back up and few people showed a willingness to splurge, especially during an economic downturn.

Perkins says this has pattern has been typical of the last five years or so, but the drop-off in the last week of November was more pronounced this year given the state of the credit market, as well as the housing slump.

He calls the time after Thanksgiving and the week before Christmas as "death valley," although retailers will likely try to pull in customers by offering even more promotions.

Comments by Target helped raise concerns that shoppers were spending slowly into the final leg of the holiday season.

The discount chain posted a 10.8% increase in comp sales, but the company said softness in the final week of the month caused its overall results to fall short of its planned range.

"This late-month sales shortfall was concentrated in key seasonal categories including toys and holiday trim, but other home and apparel categories fell short of expectations as well," Target said. "These sales trends would need to meaningfully improve in December in order to achieve fourth-quarter EPS growth."

Target shares took a beating in afternoon trading Thursday, down $4.63, or 7.7%, to $55.50.

Wal-Mart provided a largely positive look at November results. The world's biggest retailer said comparable-store sales, excluding fuel, rose 1.5% last month beating analysts estimates of 1.2%. At its namesake stores, they increased by 1% while Sam's Club warehouse stores climbed by 4.3%.

Wal-Mart said grocery and pharmacy sales continued to drive ahead in November. The company also reported strong Black Friday sales across the store, from entertainment items to sleepwear. And apparel sales picked up due to cooler temperatures but the home category remained soft.

For the December period, which goes from Dec. 1 through Jan. 4, the company expects U.S. comps to rise between 1% and 3%.

Kohls

(KSS) - Get Report

had blowout November numbers. Same-store sales for Kohl's jumped 10.2% in November, beating estimates for a 6.7% climb. The company expects December same-store sales to be down by a mid to high single digit percentage, in-line with prior guidance.

Other winners include warehouse club Costco, which reported a 9% increase in same-store sales. Analysts were expecting a 6.6% climb.

Nordstrom

(JWN) - Get Report

got a big boost from a calendar shift, with same-store sales rising 8.7% and handily topping Wall Street estimates for a 3.7% gain. December results, however, are expected to be hurt by the calendar shift.

At

Saks

(SKS)

, same-store sales came in at a whopping 25.7% climb in November, far ahead of Wall Street estimates for an 11.8% increase. The results also benefited from the calendar shift, but December same-store sales are expected to be flat to modestly negative.

Macy's

(M) - Get Report

also delivered strong results. The department store giant benefited from the calendar shift, with same-store sales climbing 13.4% in November. Analysts had expected an increase of 8.2%.

But Macy's says December same-store sales will be down by 4% to 7%. And same-store sales for the fourth quarter are expected to be down 2% to up 1%.

At

J.C. Penney

(JCP) - Get Report

, same-store sales were up 2.6% in November, but they are expected to fall by a mid single-digit percentage in December due to the calendar shift.

Elsewhere, clothing seller

Gap

(GPS) - Get Report

said comps were flat last month, but analysts were expecting a decline.

Same-store sales at Gap showed some improvement over last year's negative results. November same-store sales were flat, beating estimates for a 4.6% decline. The company's namesake posted a 1% gain while Old Navy dropped by 3%. Banana Republic's same-store sales were up 4%.

The company also reiterated its fiscal year earnings forecast, saying full year adjusted earnings guidance should be in a range between 92 cents a share to 98 cents a share.

"While we were pleased with our sales performance in November, the most important month of the quarter, December, remains ahead of us," said Sabrina Simmons, Gap's acting chief financial officer.

Limited saw same-store sales fall 7%, well below the 5% decline analysts had been looking for. Chico's reported a 13.7% decline, missing estimates for an 8% decline.

Ann Taylor

, on the other hand, posted a 3.9% increase, beating estimates for a 2.5% increase.

Teen retailer

Abercrombie & Fitch

(ANF) - Get Report

posted a 2% increase in November same-store sales. Analysts were expecting a 1.4% climb. Meanwhile,

Aeropostale

(ARO)

posted a 6.6% gain, topping estimates for a 4.6% climb.