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Retail Earnings Season Heats Up

With America's election fever hopefully ready to cool today, the financial set can get down to business.

With America’s election fever starting to cool today, retail’s financial set is getting down to business.

This story first appeared in the November 7, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

But business has just been OK.

Macy’s Inc. kicked off off what’s generally expected to be a blah third-quarter earnings season on a solid note today. The company outperformed expectations and posted a 4.3 percent rise in earnings. Profits rose to $145 million, or 36 cents a diluted share, from $139 million, or 32 cents, a year earlier. Wall Street expected the company’s earnings per share to fall to 29 cents.

Macy’s is generally seen as one of the winners in a retail landscape where the gulf between the leaders and the laggards is widening as consumers pick and choose their purchases carefully.

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“There are a few things that are good for the consumer, confidence is improving, but it’s not off to the races,” said Marie Driscoll, a retail consultant. “We’re going to see modest opportunity for margin expansion on lower input costs [such as cotton], but top line, not so strong. It’s pretty promotional out there.”

Retail continues to be a market-share war.

“Gap has done well and Macy’s has done well, but meanwhile, J.C. Penney’s is just giving away share,” Driscoll noted. “In the aggregate, I don’t think [the overall landscape] is that great.”

As quarterly results roll out over the next two weeks, it will become clear who is gaining the most traction with shoppers.

Wall Street and retail stocks both gained ground Tuesday as Americans headed to the polls to vote on who will lead the country for the next four years.

Among the gainers were companies set to release results soon, including Gap Inc., up 1.6 percent to $35.94; Nordstrom Inc., 1 percent to $58.20; J.C. Penney Co. Inc., 0.8 percent to $23.53, and Macy’s, 0.5 percent to $41.38.

Gap has been on a tear lately, after a prolonged slump. Analysts project the firm’s third-quarter earnings per share jumped 60.5 percent to 61 cents. Nordstrom is also gaining ground, with earnings expected to rise 22 percent to 72 cents a share.

On the other end of the spectrum, Penney’s, which is revamping as a specialty department store, is expected to post quarterly losses of 5 cents a share, down from earnings of 11 cents a year earlier.

Results exclude special items such as restructuring charges and represent the current analyst consensus estimates reported by Yahoo Finance.

Matthew Boss, a broadlines retail analyst at J.P. Morgan, said there aren’t likely to be any big third-quarter surprises and that there was a quiet confidence building about the holiday season.

“Inventories as a whole are more or less in line and clean in the channel and that could be a positive for margins in the fourth quarter,” Boss said.

Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon, said retailers overall have held up pretty well considering the still-high rate of unemployment, volatile gasoline prices and political gridlock.

Aronson said there would be a chance for consumers to refocus after the election.

“We’re still a consumptive society,” he said. “There are a lot of people who might feel they have deprived themselves. The talk will be, ‘What are you shopping for?’ and ‘What’s the hottest?’ and ‘Who has the best prices?’ The conditions are going to be slowly but steadily improving.”