By  on January 4, 2002

NEW YORK -- The first wave of December same-store sales results may have eased some fears about just how tough the holiday season was, but they did little to alleviate concerns about fourth-quarter and yearend profits.

Neiman Marcus Group's comparable-store sales slid 3 percent, while its specialty retail stores, including Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, declined a steeper 4.4 percent. Stronger merchandise categories were contemporary sportswear, designer jewelry, women's shoes, handbags and cosmetics. Regionally, the Midwest was the firm's top performer.

Neiman's direct business fared better than the stores, comping down only 0.6 percent. Total revenues for the Dallas-based retailer dipped 1.9 percent, to $475 million, for the five-week period ended Dec. 29.

Shares of the firm slipped 8 cents Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange to finish the day at $31.12.

As reported, Neiman's saw its first-quarter profits cut in half, to $23 million, or 48 cents a diluted share, for the period ended Oct. 27. In a statement issued with earnings at the time, Burton Tansky, president and chief executive officer, noted that the company was looking for, "a mid-single-digit decline in comparable revenues in our second fiscal quarter. We also expect the second quarter will be more promotional than last year."

In a research note, ABN AMRO analyst Christine Kilton Augustine noted that sales were slightly better than expected. "Markdown depth was equal to last year, but promotions started earlier in the month," she said. Augustine said she expects gross margin erosion for the second quarter to be worse than in the first, when gross margins fell by 340 basis points.

Ladenburg, Thalmann & Co. equity analyst Eric Beder added that the relatively strong direct business benefited from its focus on "affordable luxury items. It's not the same level that the stores are, in terms of a higher class of goods. The luxury market is still tough."

He expects the luxe-laden Saks Fifth Avenue division of Saks Inc. to post a comp decline of 5 to 8 percent for December, worse than NMG, because of its greater exposure to the more difficult Northeastern economy.

Beder feels "the fourth quarter is going to be one of these confession seasons, when companies are going to make the top line potentially, but miss the bottom line." Revisions in earnings guidance could be plentiful when most retailers report December comps next Thursday.

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