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Weak Showing for November Sales

Stores cite late Thanksgiving, uneven demand for disappointing results.

An exterior view of a Victoria's Secret store in New York.

Stores reporting November sales Thursday generally fell short of modest expectations, and December might not be much better.

Although a few retailers had a strong November finish following Thanksgiving, some observers believe that consumers will be closely watching the promotions cadence at retail throughout the month to determine the best time to jump in and buy.

Walter Loeb, retail consultant and former analyst, said, “I expect December to be fairly weak, with strong sales the weekend before Christmas. I expect some very strong promotions beginning in the next few weeks.”

Loeb also said that the plan by Kohl’s to open around the clock starting at 6 a.m. Dec. 20 through 6 p.m. Christmas Eve will likely prompt others to follow — although some retailers like Macy’s opened around the clock for several days last holiday. “I think that might be a sign of intense preparation for what will turn out to be a big disappointment for Kohl’s,” Loeb said.

Jeff Edelman, a former retail analyst and now director of retail and consumer products advisory services at McGladrey, said, “I think [holiday this year] will be a zero-sum game. Retailers who were not open [on Thanksgiving day] last year lost market share so they opened this year to get the first spending from consumers.…The sales numbers that are being reported are getting deflated by price cutting. This will go down as one of the worst Christmas seasons in the last five or six years.”

As for Kohl’s opening around the clock for a limited time period, Edelman said those that follow suit “will be on the losing end. Those that open more hours will see their costs, such as labor, going up to generate sales increases. Those costs will impact on profitability.”

Natalie Kotlyar, partner at financial services firm BDO USA and retail and consumer product industry group leader, said, “I think people have a budget of how much they want to spend and they are waiting for the lowest bottom price. That’s where we saw a lot of people going out Thanksgiving night when the stores supposedly had the best deals.” According to Kotlyar, the promotional sales so far are raising concerns over margin erosion.

“Stores such as Kohl’s that will be operating on extended hours are spreading the same sales they would otherwise be getting over a longer [store-opening] period, which will raise their costs and eat into their margins,” she said.

The pessimism over holiday was only fueled by those few retailers left reporting monthly comps. L Brands Inc. reported a 5 percent contraction in same-store sales for the month. Victoria’s Secret was down 3 percent and Bath & Body Works down 7 percent, greater than the respective 1.2 percent and 1 percent declines expected on average by analysts. The later Thanksgiving this year was expected to hurt results, but the company described the monthly tally as “slightly below expectations.”

Stein Mart Inc. provided a pleasant surprise with a 3.1 percent comp gain that beat expectations. Women’s accessories and men’s furnishings and sportswear were described as “more challenged” businesses for the company, while sales were strongest in dresses, women’s career and casual sportswear and linens.

American Apparel Inc. reported a 1 percent comp gain for the month with its new distribution center now described as “fully operational,” according to Dov Charney, chairman and chief executive officer.

The Buckle Inc. reported a 0.6 percent decline in comps for the month, slightly deeper than the 0.5 percent dip expected by analysts.

Gap Inc. said its consolidated comps rose 2 percent, with global comps at the different nameplates as follows: Gap, up 2 percent; Banana Republic, down 1 percent and Old Navy, up 3 percent.

Zumiez Inc. said its comps rose 1.7 percent.