Jewelry chainstores Zale Corp. (ZLC) and Whitehall Jewellers (JWL) Thursday reported poor December sales, mirroring a general trend of pressure on middle-market retailers, and their shares fell.

Zale Corp. said same-store sales fell 0.7 percent in November and December and forecast quarterly earnings below analysts' estimates.

Chicago-based Whitehall Jewellers same-store sales for November and December fell 9 percent, compared to a 6.4 percent increase for the holiday period in 2003.

Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Consulting Group (search), said retailers went for "tried, tested and boring products" when they placed orders for the holiday season in April.

"The price at the gas pump means people have less money ... for discretionary items. If you are not disposed to spend money and on top of that nothing interests you, why should you?" Barnard said.

Zale, which operates in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico as well as on the Internet, said it expects second-quarter earnings per share of $1.88 to $1.91. Analysts on average expected $2.01 according to Reuters Estimates.

"Zale felt that their merchandise was a little weak (in terms of) a good offering at their lower price points. And Whitehall is in transition mode, trying to establish a more upscale and fashionable line," Bill Armstrong, analyst at CL King said.

Luxury jeweler Tiffany & Co. (TIF) is slated to report sales figures on Friday and is expected to show a modest increase in U.S. comparable sales. The company posted an unexpected dip in quarterly earnings last month and slashed its profit forecast.

"The high end is definitely doing better. Wealthy people don't have to worry about gasoline prices," said Armstrong.

Some analysts also said the dollar's recent weakness would help high-end jewelers like Tiffany.

"We believe overseas tourists in the U.S. are quickly scooping up luxury items at what they perceive to be bargain prices given the current strength of international currencies," analysts at Fulcrum Global Partners said in a note Wednesday.

Shares in Zale were down 6 percent at $27.10 on the New York Stock Exchange, while Whitehall stood down 0.4 percent at $7.92.