Late Thanksgiving Dents Retail Sales

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and other top U.S. retailers reaffirmed cautious November outlooks on Monday, saying a late Thanksgiving would dent sales and push demand into December.

Analysts said the calendar effect was well-known, and the latest updates gave them no reason to change their expectations for a sluggish holiday sales period marked by aggressive advertising and discounts.

"The pattern of discounting to pull people in is continuing, and I think it's going to work," said Stephen Deedy, head of the retail and consumer products group at consulting firm Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.

Investors sent retail company share prices 0.4 percent lower after the release of the forecasts. The S&P Retailing index dropped to 284.19.

"The pre-Thanksgiving sales abound," he said.

Analysts are predicting mediocre holiday sales at best as a weak U.S. economy and waning consumer confidence restrain spending. Consumer spending accounts for some two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, so any sign of a slowdown raises concerns about the pace of economic recovery.

Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, said November sales growth at stores open at least a year was running at the low end of its forecast range of 2 percent to 4 percent.

Wal-Mart said on its recorded weekly update on Monday that sales for the week ended on Nov. 22 were not comparable with last year because Thanksgiving, the traditional start of the holiday shopping season, falls on Nov. 28, six days later than it did last year.

Most major U.S. retailers plan to release their November sales totals on December 5.

Apples to Oranges

"The four-week period (ending Nov. 29) is difficult to predict due to the Thanksgiving shift," Wal-Mart said. Wal-Mart said the past week gave no further insights into monthly sales trends because they compared with last year's strong pre-Thanksgiving food sales.

Also, last Thursday's sales were not comparable because Wal-Mart's discount stores were closed for Thanksgiving on that day in 2001. Last Friday's results paled in comparison with year-earlier day-after-Thanksgiving sales, which totaled about $1.25 billion, the company said.

Analysts tend to lump November and December sales together when trying to gauge holiday demand to iron out such differences in the calendar.

The day after Thanksgiving is usually one of the busiest shopping days of the year, but the Saturday before Christmas ranked as the biggest single day last year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Wal-Mart said the strongest categories last week included outerwear, pet supplies and pharmacy. Food sales were weak compared with last year's Thanksgiving-related demand.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (JCP) said its department store sales were on track to be flat to slightly positive for the four-week November sales period.

Fine jewelry, home goods, women's accessories and women's apparel were the best performing segments last week.

Same-store sales at its Eckerd drug stores are expected to be down 6 percent for the month and catalog sales are expected to be down 10 percent.

Federated Department Stores Inc. (FED), the parent of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, said its sales at stores open at least a year for the week ended Nov. 23 were "disappointing."

The Cincinnati-based chain said it was unable to give a sales forecast for the month but it still has high hopes for the fourth week of November, which includes the traditionally strong shopping day after Thanksgiving.

The company did back its same-store sales forecast of flat same-store sales to a 2.5 percent drop for the combined November and December period ending Jan. 4.