The bottom just fell out for Nordstrom Inc. in the third quarter.

The upscale department store — consistently one of the sector’s strongest players — found itself mired in an across-the-board slowdown that began in August. That led to a dramatic slowdown in comparable-store sales growth to 0.9 percent, a steep profit drop, a weaker outlook and a quick sell-off on Wall Street, which punished the stock in after-hours trading Thursday, pushing it down 20 percent to $50.75.

Investors were hoping to divine a clear retail trend in Nordstrom after Macy’s Inc. turned in a worst-than-expected quarter Wednesday and Kohl’s Corp. bested estimates Thursday morning.

Instead, what they found was not comforting.

Analysts on an afternoon conference call struggled to understand not just what was happening at Nordstrom, but the entire sector and pushed executives on the call to read the tea leaves for the whole market.

Blake Nordstrom, co-president, said: “We’re not economists, we’re merchants…you look at the scorecard, there are number of economic indicators that look real positive for the U.S. in the consumer and spending. All we can tell you is in our business, we saw a slowdown. And it was across the board.”

Michael Koppel, chief financial officer, added: “We went from what was a midsingle-digit comp trend to a low-single-digit comp trend. We’ve seen it across geography, we’ve seen it whether it’s in store, online, we’ve seen it by category….But you know what, one of the things that we have noted is that it did kind of reach this new plateau and kind of stayed there, and that is what gave us very clear evidence that we needed to respond and respond quickly.”

More retailers will weigh in with third-quarter results next week, shining a light on what customers did in their stores and how the firms reacted — and setting the stage for the upcoming holiday shopping season.

When Nordstrom’s customer pulled back, the company sought to adjust by adding markdowns and executives said inventory was aligned with lower projected sales.

Profits for the quarter dropped 43 percent to $81 million, or 42 cents a diluted share, and were hit hard by 15 cents per share worth of costs to close on the sale of the company’s credit card portfolio. Even excluding that, the bottom line fell versus a year earlier, when profits tallied $142 million, or 73 cents.

Revenues for the three months ended Oct. 31 gained 6 percent to $3.3 billion from $3.1 billion. Comp-sale gains had been in the midsingle digits for six straight quarters before posting much more modest gains this past quarter.

Nordstrom cut its financial guidance for the year. Excluding the impact of the credit card transaction, the company is looking for earnings of $3.40 to $3.50 a diluted share, down from the $3.70 to $3.80 previously projected. Comp sales are slated to gain 2.5 to 3 percent, less than the 3.5 to 4.5 percent previously forecast.

The retailer sold its credit card portfolio to TD Bank for $2.2 billion last month and plans to put $325 million of that toward debt reduction and transaction costs while the balance will be returned to shareholders.

Despite the weakness in the third quarter and on the horizon, Nordstrom is sticking by its longer-term goal to post $20 billion in sales by 2020.

“As we look ahead, we remain confident in our strategy, making progress through multiple growth initiatives,” Blake Nordstrom said. “In the third quarter, we had an unprecedented number of store openings with three new full-line stores, one relocation, and 16 Rack stores. This is a noteworthy effort….Our total full-price business had a 3.2 percent sales growth…this includes our continued expansion in Canada, which represents a $1 billion sales opportunity by 2020.”

The company opened its first international flagship in Vancouver in September and expects to learn things from that as it opens more stores, including in Toronto next year and then Manhattan.

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