By  on February 4, 2009

Neiman Marcus Inc.’s comparable-store sales fell 24.4 percent in January, a slight improvement from December’s 27.5 percent decline but more evidence the luxury sector is being hit by the downturn as much as any other.

The unexpectedly severe luxe pullback has the company projecting a loss for its second quarter ended Jan. 31. Comps for the three months decreased 22.8 percent to $1.06 billion, while total revenues were off 21.4 percent to $1.08 billion. The company, which includes Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, is privately owned but reports quarterly results because it has public debt.

Comps at Neiman Marcus Direct fell 18.3 percent in January.

“In order to stimulate sales and reduce our inventory levels, we were much more promotional than in prior years,” said Burt Tansky, chairman and chief executive officer. “We currently anticipate a significant decrease in our gross margins and a deleveraging of expenses caused by the decline in revenues.”

Tansky emphasized the company’s dedication to its long-term strategy.

“During these very challenging times, we have been and continue to focus on increasing sales, reducing inventory levels and implementing numerous expense initiatives,” he said. “Regardless of the business conditions, we will never waiver from our commitment of providing the highest level of service to our customers.”

Neiman Marcus has about $220 million in cash and $576 million available under a $600 million asset-backed revolving credit facility. Tansky said the firm was still working out its capital spending plans for this year and would eliminate or delay certain projects to provide additional liquidity. As of Nov. 1, the firm had current liabilities, which are due within one year, of $650.2 million, and long-term liabilities of $4.18 billion.

On Thursday, investors will get a look at how other retailers fared last month. The outlook isn’t good.

Adrienne Tennant, an equity analyst at FBR Capital Markets, said mall traffic has been weak and full-price goods aren’t selling.

“The extreme discounting we have seen in the past several months has trained shoppers to wait until merchandise goes on sale before purchasing,” said Tennant, who covers specialty stores. “If this pattern of waiting for the markdown is perpetuated by shoppers, then margin weakness could carry forward well into [fiscal 2009].”

That shopping attitude makes it hard for fresh goods to gain traction on the sales floor.

“Though we note the emergence of new floor sets by several retailers, the merchandising effort is being largely ignored, as cash-strapped consumers head straight for clearance items,” Tennant said, noting some clearance goods are on their second or third markdown.

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