Updated from 9:22 a.m. EST
Holiday retailing began with a fizzle as companies reported widespread sales disappointments for November and forecasters were forced to lower their estimates for the make-or-break selling season.
The International Council of Shopping Centers, or ICSC, said overall same-store sales rose just 1.7% compared with the same month last year, based on a tally of results from 71 national retailers. That figure is below the organization's forecast calling for a 2.5% to 3% gain, even after it lowered expectations early this week from the original estimate of 3% to 4%. It also marks the second weakest month this year, behind August's 1.3% pace.
"This is not a good omen for the holiday season," said Michael Niemera, chief economist and director of research with ICSC. "It suggests that the shopping that was occurring in November was principally being driven by bargain prices and there was no follow-through. This is not a good sign, but maybe we'll see a pickup in December when the procrastinators start to go shopping."
Based on November's results, the ICSC lowered its estimates for the holiday season results to 2.5% to 3% from the previous 3% to 4% range. On Wall Street, investors had renewed concerns about the overall health of consumer spending going into the new year.
"The extremely leveraged consumer is beginning to run out of steam," said Ben Halliburton, chief investment officer with Tradition Capital Management. "They've been enjoying the refinancing boom, which has been tailing off now for the last seven or eight months, and there's less cash for consumers to go out and spend at retail stores."
Predictions of a consumer slowdown have abounded of late, despite a confluence of signs that the overall economy is strengthening. But investors have repeatedly shrugged off the warnings from doomsayers after a series of weak patches in the early spring and again in late summer, reassured in their faith that the job market is rebounding and American spenders have an insatiable appetite for new products.
While consumer confidence readings from a variety of sources have been in a steady decline since July, October's blowout employment data, showing the economy adding 337,000 jobs, bolstered bullish attitudes. On Friday, economists expect the government to report that 200,000 jobs were added in November.
"I think we are seeing a slower pace in spending," Niemera said. "Will consumer spending slow dramatically now? I don't think so. I think consumer spending will revert back to its long-term trend. We're getting there, but in a very irregular fashion."
Investors sided with Niemera's assessment Thursday, as the S&P Retail Index rose 0.9%. Halliburton, on the other hand, thinks November's weakness is only the beginning.
"I think this weakness that has started will continue," he said. "We see this as a major cyclical issue that will last for a year or two. It's quite possible that it's actually a secular issue that could last for five or six years.
"Unfortunately, the U.S. consumer has borrowed extensive amounts of money to maintain purchases throughout the recession and have dropped their savings rate to extremely low levels. People have been crying wolf about this for years, and it looks like the wolf has finally arrived at the door," he said.
On the heels of an anemic November, the world's biggest retailer,
, forecast same-store sales growth of 1% to 3% for the current quarter, down from an old estimate of 2% to 4%. The company also confirmed the 0.7% gain in November comps, a number it previewed Saturday.
By segment, the company's Sam's Club division recorded a 2.9% jump in November same-store sales, while domestic Wal-Mart stores, the company's largest division, posted a 0.3% gain. Total company sales rose 8.7% to $23.54 billion.
"Wal-Mart's much slower rate of sales growth in November clearly shows this is a matured global business," said Richard Hastings, a retail analyst with Bernard Sands LLC. "As supermarket goods continue to increase as a percentage of sales -- and this includes consumables and perishables sold in big volume at Sam's -- we will expect to see a persistently slower rate of top-line growth. Should wage, benefit, rent and utilities expenses rise further over at Wal-Mart, we should see a slightly slower rate of profit growth."
Wal-Mart shares were recently up 24 cents, or 0.4%, to $53.06 in the midst of a broader market rally.
The company's chief competitor,
, reported same-store sales in line with estimates, up 3.2%. Total sales for the month rose 9% to $4.2 billion from $3.86 billion a year ago.
reported its own disappointment, with a monthly same-store sales gain of 5%. Wall Street was expecting the discounter to post an increase closer to 6%, but the company blamed an accounting change for the miss. Its total November sales rose 7% to $4.08 billion.
BJ's Wholesale Club
said its November comps rose 1.8% in November, falling short of its own forecast, which called for a 2% to 4% gain. It posted total sales up 5.5% to $591 million.
posted a 1.4% drop in same-store sales, citing weakness in early November. The parent of Macy's and Bloomingdale's now says fourth-quarter comps will be flat to up 1.5%, down from its prior forecast of up 1.5% to 3%. Its total sales dropped 1.6% to $1.43 billion.
reported same-store sales below expectations, showing a gain of 3.1%, with total sales up 6.2% to $667.6 million.
disappointed Wall Street with a negative November comp, down 4%, saying holiday demand was weaker than anticipated. Analysts were expecting a gain. Total sales for the month were flat at $1.4 billion. Based on the results, the company said it expects full-year operating margins, excluding expenses related to early retirement of debt, of 12.5% to 13%, down from its previous estimate of 13.5% to 16.4%.
Pier 1 Imports
said its November comps fell 9.1%. The home furnishings retailer blamed the drop on low marketing support from television and newspaper inserts during the first three weeks of the month. Total sales fell 2.2% to $167.2 million, and the company guided its third-quarter estimates down to a range of 22 cents to 23 cents a share based on the results. Analysts were expecting earnings or 27 cents a share, according to Thomson First Call.
said its same-store sales dropped unexpectedly by 5%, with Wall Street expecting a gain. The operator of Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works, Express and Limited Stores posted total sales down 3% to $762.7 million.
reported an unexpected decline in same-store sales, down 0.5%. Wall Street was expecting a modest gain. Total sales rose 4% to $130.5 million.
On a brighter note,
said Wednesday its same-store sales beat Wall Street's estimates, jumping 8.6% in November, with total sales climbing 28% to $88.7 million.
also beat expectations, reporting a same-store sales gain of 22.7%, and
said comps rose 4.1% for the month.