Holiday sales came late and often at the expense of profit margins for U.S. retailers in December.

Stores reporting December same-store sales results Thursday generally reported increases and the majority of them exceeded the levels expected by analysts. Notable exceptions were Target Corp., which disappointed the investment community with a 1.6 percent comparable-store increase for the month, about half of what analysts expected, and Kohl’s Corp., which checked in with a 0.1 percent decline versus the 2.2 percent increase expected. Both firms lowered their fourth-quarter earnings guidance.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. defied expectations of a 0.1 percent decline with its 0.3 percent increase for the month despite traffic and sales that were “softer than expected.” Margin pressure prompted it to lower its fourth-quarter earnings guidance, sending its shares down in morning trading Thursday.

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Even with the overall strength of top-line performances, retailers underscored the bottom-line pressures they faced from the intensely promotional tone of the season. Several pointed out that unseasonably warm weather for most of the month had left them with excess inventories of outerwear and cold-weather merchandise that would require aggressive discounting to bring to more desirable levels.

Upscale retailers fared well, as Nordstrom Inc. outpaced the Thomson Reuters estimate of a 5.1 percent increase with its 8.7 percent expansion and Saks Inc.’s matched estimates with a 5.8 percent jump.

Macy’s Inc.’s comp increase of 6.2 percent was 1.2 points higher than expected, and came gift-wrapped with a doubling of the company’s dividend and an increase in its stock repurchase authorization. The company pointed out that its online sales, included in its monthly comp number, were up 40.3 percent for the November/December holiday period.

Other department stores surpassing estimates were Dillard’s Inc., a point better than expected with a 4 percent comp gain, and Stage Stores Inc., just ahead of the 1 percent estimate with a 1.2 percent gain.

Andy Hall, president and chief executive officer of Stage, commented, “The promotional business environment experienced on Black Friday continued throughout December as consumers remained motivated by value. While our December average unit retail was up 2.3 percent, it was not enough to offset cost inflation, and therefore will pressure our fourth-quarter gross margin rate.”

Gap Inc. fell well short of expectations for a 1.3 percent decline with its 4 percent slide for the month. While the North American nameplates of Gap and Old Navy both were down 4 percent, Banana Republic was down 2 percent and international operations down 6 percent.

“We expected December to be highly promotional, and while we competed aggressively across our brands, our performance was below our expectations,” said Glenn Murphy, chairman and ceo of Gap. “That said, we are encouraged by bright spots across our business, and we’re clear and focused on what needs to be fixed in order to improve our sales trend in 2012.”

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Results among teen retailers were uneven, with Zumiez Inc. and The Buckle Inc. well ahead of expectations with increases of 10 percent and 8.9 percent and The Wet Seal Inc. falling short of estimates with a 3.7 percent decline.

Susan McGalla, ceo of Wet Seal, said that a less promotional approach at its namesake division contributed to a 2.5 percent comp decline, but that merchandise margins improved as a result.

The “brands for less” strategy again worked in favor of off-price giants The TJX Cos. Inc. and Ross Stores Inc., which reported increases of 8 percent and 9 percent, respectively, more than double those expected. Both companies raised their quarterly earnings guidance and TJX announced a two-for-one stock split.

With the conclusion of the holiday season, a number of stores which no longer report quarterly results provided seasonal performance updates. Among these were American Apparel Inc., which said the its comps in the final three months of its fiscal year rose 7 percent as online sales accelerated 20 percent, and Aéropostale Inc., which cited “aggressive levels of promotions throughout the mall” in disclosing a 10 percent comp decline in the November/December period.

However, Aéropostale reiterated its previous fourth-quarter guidance for earnings of between 35 and 38 cents a diluted share.

Investors were keeping a close watch on the bottom-line impact of holiday sales and pushed the S&P Retail Index down 1 percent, or 5.22 points, to 523.85 in morning trading. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was also down, slipping 0.8 percent, or 103.99 point, to 12,314.43.

Among those posting the steepest declines were Penney, off 5.6 percent to $32.96, and Gap Inc., 4.8 percent to $17.97.

American Eagle Outfitters Inc. said its comps for the combined November and December period rose 12 percent, but part of that was driven by an increase in promotions during the final two weeks of the year. Those price cuts contributed to a lower profit outlook for the fourth quarter and prompted investors to push the firm’s stock down 13 percent to $13.19 in morning trading.