Sales slowed in November at many of the nation's biggest retailers as heavy, post-Thanksgiving shopping failed to make up for cautious spending by consumers earlier in the month.
Sears, Roebuck and Co., Target Corp. and Federated Department Stores all posted sales decreases - as much as 10 percent in the case of Sears - compared with November 2001.
Same-store sales fell an average 0.1 percent, according to Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd.'s index of 79 retailers. That average missed the bank's forecast of a 1 percent increase and marked the first November drop since 1970.
Retail analysts attributed the weakness to low consumer confidence and job layoffs. But it didn't help that Thanksgiving came later than usual last month, leaving just two post-Thanksgiving shopping days in the month, experts said.
"There are a lot of negative numbers out there," said Keri Spanbauer, senior equity analyst for Thrivent Financial in Appleton, Wis. "Department stores were weak. The discounters are faring better, but they're all impacted by this shift in the holiday."
Some of November's lost sales could be made up in December, a crucial month for retailers to depend upon this year to equal or surpass last year's holiday season, analysts said.
"The fact that last weekend was strong is encouraging, but [the seasonal performance] is so dependent on December ... it's too early to say how the holiday season is going to shake out," Spanbauer said.
The robust "Black Friday" and Saturday after Thanksgiving gave a small boost to an otherwise dismal month, analysts said. Stores opened early and cut prices on home electronics, toys and apparel to lure shoppers.
"The strong Thanksgiving sales wiped out a deficit of the previous two weeks," said Michael Green, a vice president of retail for Cap Gemini Ernst and Young in Kansas City, Mo. "But it was not a real strong month."
Department stores continued to be hurt by changing consumer patterns. Mall and department store traffic has fallen off as shoppers have turned to discounters.
"The discounters in general have done a good job of pulling people from the malls into the discount format," Green said.
In the department store sector, sales fell 10.9 percent at Sears, which the company said was in line with expectations. But the retailer said it was encouraged by its Thanksgiving week results.
Sales decreased 7.4 percent at Federated Department Stores Inc., the parent of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, and 7 percent at Saks Inc. Sales were flat at J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and dipped 3.4 percent at Kohl's Corp.
"With the later Thanksgiving, sales of holiday gifts got off to a slower start than we had planned" - though post- Thanksgiving sales rose over last year's Black Friday weekend, said Larry Montgomery, chief executive officer of Kohl's.
Target's comparable-store sales were off by 6.7 percent, hurt by weak sales in the chain's department store division.
"The consumer is definitely looking for value this year, and they're finding that in the discounters in many cases," Spanbauer said. "Also, the department stores in the malls tend not to be very differentiated from each other."
But even stores that compete on price, including warehouse clubs and industry giant Wal-Mart, felt the impact of Thanksgiving falling so late in November, analysts and retailers said. Sales rose just 2.6 percent at Wal-Mart and 0.5 percent at BJ's Wholesale Club.
BJ's said its results also reflect price deflation in a number of food and general merchandise categories.
Specialty stores, too, have struggled.
Sales plunged 13 percent at Abercrombie & Fitch, 3 percent at The Talbots Inc. and 10.3 percent at AnnTaylor Stores Corp., which blamed the effect of economic uncertainty on consumer spending.
Some bright spots among specialty retailers included sales increases of 9 percent at Gap Inc. and 11.7 percent at Pacific Sunwear of California Inc.
"Our holiday merchandise is being well received by our customers," said Greg Weaver, chairman and chief executive officer of Pacific Sunwear.
Sales increases at Gap were driven by improvements in merchandise assortment and marketing initiatives and promotions, including a $29 sweater special, said Jennifer Black, a retail analyst with Wells Fargo Securities.
"Several stores we visited appeared almost to have run out of this category," Black said in a research report issued yesterday.