Updated from 10:11 a.m. EST
The majority of retailers joined
on Thursday in disappointing Wall Street with October sales results that suggest consumers are finally ratcheting back their spending.
Just as the industry prepares for a crucial holiday selling season, Thomson Financial said 57% of the major retail chains reported sales for the month that missed analysts' expectations.
Shares of Wal-Mart,
all fell around 2% after each posted numbers that were deemed not up to snuff.
Wal-Mart said it expects to post flat U.S. same-store sales this month -- a weak showing for the discount giant that follows October's scant 0.5% gain. The world's biggest retailer blamed the effect of last year's restocking efforts in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Retail Metrics, a research firm, reported that 61% of the retailers comprising its monthly same-store sales index had light numbers for October.
Excluding strong results from pharmacy chains like
, along with weak results from Wal-Mart, the firm said its index posted a 3.3% increase for the month. Analysts were expecting a 3.7% gain.
Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics, called the results "very disappointing." He says they create uncertainty for retailers as to whether a widely predicted, sustained slowdown in consumer spending is at hand or shoppers just took some downtime during the month in preparation for the holidays.
"I would lean toward saying that this is just a breather, and people will start spending again in November and December," says Perkins. "The real question is what will happen after the holiday. If weakness in the economy from a slowing housing market spills over into the job market and consumer confidence, things could really start to get ugly."
Aside from Wal-Mart's dour outlook on November, its chief rival Target reported October comps that fell short of estimates. The trendy discounter said its same-store sales rose 3.9%, but analysts had expected a 4.2% increase, according to consensus estimates reported by Thomson. The results hit the lower end of the retailer's guidance for a 3% to 5% gain.
Another major discount chain, Costco, reported that its same-store sales rose 4% in October, falling shy of estimates. International comps were up 11%, while U.S. same-store sales added only 2%. The company said in a prerecorded call that falling gasoline prices shaved 1.5 percentage points off of its result.
BJ's Wholesale Club
said last month's same-store sales dropped 0.7%, including a negative impact from gasoline sales of 2.5%. Analysts were looking for a 1% increase. Excluding the effect of fuel revenue, same-store sales rose 1.7%.
The warehouse retailers weren't the only ones struggling, as the deep-bargain chains also found shoppers being a bit stingier.
Family Dollar Stores
( FD) said October's same-store sales increased about 1%, but that was well short of the consensus estimate of 3%.
The company said the strongest sales were in electronics and refrigerated food, but apparel and home products were weak.
said October same-store sales increased 1.9%, missing the 3.1% expectation.
In specialty retailing,
posted an unexpected decline in comps of 0.5% for October.
continued its struggles, with a 7% drop in comps for the month. The specialty empire, which owns Gap Stores, Banana Republic and Old Navy, hasn't managed to deliver yet on the turnaround that it has promised investors for the back half of this year.
As for the teen-apparel retailers,
Abercrombie & Fitch
had a poor showing, saying its October same-store sales fell 3%, while analysts had predicted a 2% increase.
fared much better, logging a 5.6% comp increase that beat expectations.
Department stores were a pocket of strength, as
recorded a 7.7% jump in comps, beating expectations, and
said its comps rose a better-than-expected 8.1%.
For its part, Wal-Mart said its U.S. namesake stores that weren't affected by the 2005 hurricanes had same-store sales gains of roughly 1.7% in October.
"Last year, we saw a positive impact on comps from customers who restocked their homes after the hurricanes, and this continued through the end of the fiscal year," the company said in a statement. "The impact on comps from hurricanes will continue, but will soften somewhat during the next three months."
Despite this excuse, investors have interpreted recent weakness from Wal-Mart as a sign that its effort to target more upscale shoppers by remodeling its stores and remaking its image is falling flat.
"Our remodeling efforts in the Wal-Mart Stores division wrap up during the next two weeks to ensure there is no disruption for our customers during the holiday shopping period," the company said. "Remodeling activities will begin again in late January and will continue into the next fiscal year."
Wal-Mart's issues have long been isolated to it alone, as the widespread spending weakness that many economists have been predicting this year has yet to become a definitive trend among its competitors. October's results suggest that may be changing.
"The next few months are critical," says Perkins.