By  on December 2, 2011

There are growing signs holiday might not be gangbusters after all.

Retailers pulled out all the stops on Black Friday, giving shoppers the nudge they needed to boost November comparable sales, but last weekend’s windfall wasn’t enough to quell fears of a tepid Christmas.

Some analysts said that, barring Black Friday, November was downright sluggish and spoke volumes about the state of the consumer, particularly budget shoppers. Others pointed to hints of a slowdown in luxury spending, which began to emerge last month.

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“Black Friday was strong, but the overall November results, including the entire month, were not as strong, reinforcing our belief that the lulls in demand and mall traffic between key shopping periods are becoming more challenging as customers wait for new promotions and events to entice them to buy,” said Nomura retail analyst Paul Lejuez, who said he expects a “significant” pause in shopping between now and Christmas.

Overall in November, retailers posted a 3.2 percent comp increase helped by Black Friday initiatives such as steep discounts, longer store hours, price matching, free shipping and aggressive marketing campaigns, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

That was good enough for investors, who pushed the S&P Retail Index up 0.5 percent, or 2.35 points, to 529.78 on Thursday, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average slipped 0.2 percent, or 25.65 points, to 12,020.03.

“During November, the nation’s major retail chains experienced a slowdown in the overall pace of spending and it was across the board,” said ICSC chief economist Michael Niemira. The economist was looking for an increase of 3.5 to 4 percent, but said increased discounting at certain retailers and unfavorable weather hurt sales.

“We had an absolute bang-up Black Friday, but I would have expected to see the have-nots do better than have-nots did,” said Joel Bines, managing director at AlixPartners’ global retail practice. “We still have a major dichotomy in the consumer economically.”

Retailers that have traditionally performed well through the recession slowly gobbled up more market share as struggling chains continued to flail.

Upscale retailers Saks Inc. and Nordstrom Inc. turned in gains of 9.3 and 5.6 percent, respectively, while fresh merchandise helped Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret turn in comp increases of 4.8 and 11 percent, respectively.

“In value, no one is really winning. They are just surviving,” Bines said, pointing to value-price titan Target Corp., which turned in a 1.8 percent comp gain, missing expectations by one percentage point. “The behemoths can’t hang on forever.”

But some behemoths held their own rather well. Costco Wholesale Corp., The TJX Cos. Inc. and Ross Stores Inc. produced increases of 7, 4 and 5 percent, respectively.

Analysts said those retailers likely extracted market share from value chain Old Navy, where comps fell 7 percent — the worst showing from the retailers reporting November sales Thursday.

Meanwhile, Macy’s Inc., which posted a 4.8 percent comp gain, appeared to grab some dollars from J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Kohl’s Corp., which posted respective declines of 2 and 6.2 percent.

“Macy’s is always positioned to do well because they have the holiday promotional concept and inventory management down,” said Michael Moriarty, a partner at consulting firm A.T. Kearney, who was largely optimistic for holiday.

“It will be a fun holiday season,” he said, explaining that even though a fair portion of holiday shopping is over, retailers are ready. “When you’ve been thirsty for three years, a little glass of water tastes good,” the consultant said. “Their inventories are tighter than before.”

Although comps are expected to accelerate in December — ICSC a 3.5 percent to 4 percent rise — Morgan Stanley analyst Kimberly Greenberger remained cautious in her outlook.

“We are starting to see the consumer in the northeast corridor of the U.S. pull back on spending,” she said, pointing to signs of a slowdown from Tiffany & Co. this week. “Consumers, particularly high-end consumers, are becoming a bit more cautious about their spending habits. This could mean more cautious spending for holiday from luxury.”

Although this is a “recent turn of events,” Greenberger said it could be linked to media reports of layoffs in the financial sector and a decline in Wall Street bonuses.

Because luxury consumers have already satisfied a good deal of their pent-up demand, spending will “normalize” and moderate next year, she said.

With that in mind, who will pick up the slack in 2012?

“We’re looking for a rich uncle,” Greenberger said with a laugh.

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