By  on August 20, 2010

The on-again, off-again economic rebound has created a limbo of sorts for retailers, where those consumers who have held onto their jobs are still interested in low prices but are also looking for a bit more.

The immediate beneficiaries now appear to include the large, well-funded giants that are stocking up on targeted and exclusive offerings, such as Macy’s Inc. and its just-launched Material Girl collection. Macy’s second-quarter comparable-store sales rose 4.9 percent, and Kohl’s Corp. managed a 4.6 percent increase. Both companies talked about gaining market share last week.

In contrast, off-pricers, which found themselves in vogue during the recession, continued to click along in the quarter, but their armor showed signs of cracking.

Ross Stores Inc.’s profits rose 25 percent to $129.3 million, or $1.07 a diluted share, for the quarter following a 45 percent gain a year earlier, and sales rose 8.1 percent to $1.91 billion on a 4 percent comparable-store sales gain.

Jefferies & Co. analyst Randal Konik said Ross’ results last quarter were strong but that growth was not as robust as investors had become accustomed to.

“We fear that the economic calamity of the last few years has investors believing in a secular shift to the off-price/discount channel,” Konik said in a research note. “We believe there was not a secular shift; rather a cyclical one that will come back to the full-price channel as the economy slowly improves.”

Shoppers don’t appear to be fleeing to Sears Holding Corp.’s stores, either. The firm’s losses narrowed to $39 million, or 35 cents a diluted share, from $94 million, or 79 cents, a year earlier, but revenues slipped 0.9 percent to $10.46 billion. For the quarter, comparable-store sales decreased 1.4 percent at the Kmart division and fell 2.8 percent at the Sears U.S. stores.

The Bon-Ton Stores Inc. narrowed losses to $33.7 million, or $1.91 a diluted share, from $34.8 million, or $2.04, last year, but revenues fell 0.4 percent to $622.6 million, despite a 0.2 percent comp rise.

But the shifts in consumer patterns might not be clear cut.

“You might think of it as postmodern retailing,” said Leon Nicholas, director of retail insights at Kantar Retail. “You’ve got multiple generations that you’re focusing on, where growth is disparate and short lived and where there is no narrative.”

Both the S&P Retail Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost ground Thursday, pulled down in part by the unexpected rise in jobless claims.

The S&P Retail Index decreased 1.5 percent, or 6.02 points, to 408.28, and the Dow Jones retreated 1.4 percent, or 144.33 points, to 10,271.21.

Asian investors were feeling a bit more bullish, driving the Nikkei 225 up 1.3 percent in Tokyo and the Hang Seng Index ahead 0.2 percent in Hong Kong. But European investors pushed the CAC 40 down 2.1 percent in Paris, the DAX down 1.8 percent in Frankfurt and the FTSE 100 down 1.7 percent in London.

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