Wet Sept. Dampens Retail Sales

Top U.S. retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), reported lackluster September sales on Thursday, as warm weather and string of hurricanes that battered the East Coast dampened buying.

The soggy sales prompted many retailers to curb their enthusiasm about third-quarter results. AnnTaylor Stores Corp. (ANN) slashed its earnings forecasts for the rest of the year, and Federated Department Stores Inc. (FD) said that the modest improvement in September sales was "not enough to predict a robust October."

Wal-Mart (search), the world's biggest retailer, reported a 2.4 percent gain in September sales at its U.S. stores open at least a year — a key retail gauge known as same-store sales.

The results were a hair above the 2.3 percent estimate the company gave on Saturday, but still at the low end of the 2 percent to 4 percent range it had previously forecast, weakness the company blamed on tough year-over-year comparisons with last year when cool weather drove sales.

Wal-Mart said on Tuesday that its third-quarter earnings would come out at the low end of its 52 cent to 54 cent range.

Late Wednesday, Limited Brands Inc. (LTD) reported that its September same-store sales fell 5 percent on lackluster demand for its apparel brands. Clothing retailer Talbots Inc. (TLB) said on Thursday its same-store sales fell 1.3 percent.

There were some bright spots, particularly among discount retailers like Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST) and Target Corp. (TGT). Teen-oriented clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) in September posted its first same-store sales gain since May.

Still, the news was largely bleak.

"The magnitude of the misses can't be explained away by hurricanes and an Indian summer," John Morris, retail analyst at Harris Nesbitt, said. "We clearly have evidence of the consumer slowing in the last two weeks (of September), and some of the retailers are backing off of saying we'll see a significant rebound in October."

Gap Inc. (GPS) said September same-store sales fell 3 percent, hurt by lackluster performance of its international Gap business. Home furnishings retailer Pier 1 Imports Inc. (PIR) reported a 3.9 percent drop in September same-store sales, as hurricanes in Florida and nearby states hurt demand.

Analysts had been anticipating a relatively tepid month for retailers given the strong results in the same month last year, when cooler temperatures and child tax credits helped drive demand for fall merchandise, often at full price.

The Labor Day holiday, which fell in September this year on retailers' calendars, helped beef up sales a bit, but that was overshadowed by a litany of problems.

Hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne slammed the U.S. Southeast during the month, and the storms did significant damage to retailers with a heavy presence in the Florida and other Southern states.

Record high oil prices, which can take a bigger bite out of consumers' budgets, and concerns about the slack U.S. labor market are also to blame for the sluggish sales that have plagued retailers through the summer and into the key back-to-school season.

Last week, a closely watched survey from the University of Michigan took a surprise downturn in September, sliding to 94.2 from 95.9 in August. Analysts had been expecting a slight rise to 96.0.

Warehouse club operator Costco posted a rise in fourth-quarter same-store sales of 8 percent and better-than-expected earnings, as sales of health and beauty aids, food and hardware, offset sluggish back-to-school sales.

Target said its September same-store sales rose 5.6 percent and that its October same-store would likely rise 4 percent to 6 percent.