NEW YORK — Retailers are fearing the worst holiday shopping season in three decades and, if the latest weekly sales figures from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are any indication, they may be right.

The world’s largest company Thursday reported it had lowered its December same-store sales forecast once again as the days leading up to Christmas produced "too little, too late."

The Bentonville, Ark.-based powerhouse said December comparable-store sales are now likely to increase 2 to 3 percent. On Monday, the company had warned that same-store sales would be at the low end of the 3 to 5 percent advance earlier forecast. Furthermore, Wal-Mart said December comps at Sam’s Clubs will be negative.

While sales did pick up over the pre-Christmas weekend and in the days leading up to the holiday, with two of those days producing more than $1 billion in sales, it wasn’t enough to make plan, the company said.

Men’s and boys’ apparel were cited as among the weakest sales categories, a group that also included small appliances. The strongest performers included cosmetics, jewelry, toys, electronics and seasonal merchandise.

Wal-Mart said the best-performing regions since the Friday before Christmas were the West and Northeast sections of the U.S. Internationally, the U.K., Argentina and Brazil all performed well.

However, Wal-Mart investors shrugged off the news and traded up the firm’s shares 6 cents, or 0.1 percent, to close at $49.76 in New York Stock Exchange trading Thursday.

Partially as a result of the weak sales figures, on Thursday, Prudential Financial lowered its earnings-per-share forecast for Wal-Mart and now expects the company to earn 53 cents a diluted share in the fourth quarter. Previously, Prudential had anticipated EPS of 56 cents.

For the full fiscal year ending next month, Prudential analysts Wayne Hood and Matthew Laing lowered their estimate to $1.77 from $1.80. Their fiscal 2003 estimate is now $2.01 rather than $2.05.

The Wall Street consensus estimate for the current fourth quarter is 55 cents a diluted share, and is $1.79 for the fiscal year ending next month

Conversely, Salomon Smith Barney, unfazed by the news, said it remains comfortable with its previous fourth-quarter penny-below-consensus estimate of 54 cents."Although somewhat surprising," wrote analyst Deborah Weinswig in a research note to investors, "this confirms our previous thoughts that holiday sales could be the worst in a decade. Our estimate remains a 2 to 3 percent increase in non-auto retail sales. Comps at the Wal-Mart division may still land in the 3 to 5 percent range if post-Christmas sales show strength."

Weinswig added that the negative comp performance at Sam’s Clubs is likely to put a damper on total company comp increases and that Wal-Mart’s performance confirms the trend of a cautious consumer who is waiting for postholiday markdowns, sales and other promotional activity.

Other mass and discount players who had a good day on the Street included Sears, Roebuck & Co., which closed up 31 cents, or 1.4 percent, at $23.10; Target Corp., which finished the day up 57 cents, or 2 percent, to $28.75; Kohl’s, which added 35 cents, or 0.6 percent, to close at $54.87, and ShopKo, whose stock ended ahead 55 cents, or 4.4 percent, to finish at $12.95. J.C. Penney Co. shares were unchanged at $22.25.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 15.50, or 0.2 percent, to 8,432.61. However, the Standard & Poor’s Retail Index rose 1.31, or 0.5 percent, to 264.15.

Overall, this year’s total U.S. holiday sales are projected to have fallen 11 percent to $113.1 billion from $127.3 billion in 2001, according to ShopperTrak RCT, which tracks retail sales.

In related news, as retailers rushed to mark down Christmas merchandise, a survey released Thursday by the National Retail Federation painted a picture of an industry swimming in merchandise. As a result, according to the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd. and NRF’s Retail Executive Survey, merchants in December are deploying "unplanned" discounting, resulting in prices being slashed 33.7 percent below normal.

The NRF survey showed December inventories were 8.8 percent above normal, a level that has increased steadily since September when the NRF executive poll was launched. Then, stores could boast inventories of about 3.5 percent below normal.

"This has certainly been a challenging holiday season for the retail industry," said NRF ceo Tracy Mullin in a statement. "As usual, the high degree of last-minute shopping suggests that we are a nation of procrastinators. Retailers will be counting on post-holiday sales more than usual to pad their holiday numbers. As much as 10 percent of holiday sales can be recorded the week after Christmas."NRF spokesman Scott Krugman told WWD: "We’re shifting from discounting to clearance. Retailers are focusing on getting apparel off their shelves and into people’s closets. It happens every year, so it’s not too much of a shock to the system."

Despite the current soft retail environment, retail executives are "cautiously optimistic" about business conditions six months out, the NRF said. With 50 percent being normal, the survey’s Retail Sector Performance Index in December stood at 44.9 percent, a slight improvement from November’s 43.3 percent. The index measures executive views about monthly sales, customer traffic, the average transaction per customer, employment, inventories and six-month-ahead sales expectations. Fifty-two executives from department, specialty and mass retail stores participated in the survey.

The executives said current demand is almost 8 percent below normal. Although six months from now, they forecast demand to improve to 5 percent below normal.

Assessing industry discounting or pricing power, the survey also revealed that the December Industry Pricing Index fell to an "extremely low" 16.3 percent. That number reflects widespread discounting and is the lowest reading for the index since the new monthly survey began in September.

"Higher inventories have helped increase the breadth of price discounting," said Michael Niemira, senior retail analyst at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd in a statement. "This suggests that retailers are beginning to use unplanned markdowns to attract last-minute shoppers, clear excess inventories and pad their holiday sales numbers."

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