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Crazy Christmas offers retailers mixed bag

In what turned out to be one of the stranger holiday seasons in recent memory retailers fought through a range of unconventional headwinds to deliver an uneven performance.

Department store retailers felt the pinch and some performed better than others in an uncertain environment characterized by the freak superstorm Sandy, unsettling political bickering over the nation’s finances and a tragic school shooting that reignited the divisive issue of gun control. Despite the overhang of these factors, shoppers still managed to spend with some of the strongest performances turned in at opposite ends of the value spectrum. For example, Nordstrom’s sales increased 8.6% and Macy’s was up 4.1% while TJX Companies and Ross Stores both reported a 6% increase and increased their fourth quarter profit forecasts.

"This comp increase significantly exceeded our expectations and was achieved over an 8% increase last year," said TJX CEO Carol Meyrowitz. "Our December sales underscore that value remains top of mind for consumers and that our ability to offer extreme values during a promotional holiday selling season continues to be one of our key strengths. Once again, customer traffic drove the comp increases at all divisions for the month and importantly, we are confident that we will keep our new and already loyal customers coming back in the New Year and beyond."

At Ross, the company’s 6% gain was far better than the 2% to 3% increase that had been forecast due to a challenging comparison the prior year when comps increase 9%.

"These gains were on top of our most challenging sales comparison of the year and demonstrate the ongoing resilience of our off-price model as we continue to attract value-conscious shoppers with our wide assortments of compelling name brand bargains," said Ross CEO Michael Balmuth.

Conversely, Macy’s solid performance wasn’t enough to keep the retailer from cutting its fourth quarter guidance and it also detailed a series of "normal-course adjustments" to its store portfolio. Those adjustments included closing six underperforming stores. The chain will open nine other Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s around the country to rebuild its total store count.
CEO Terry Lundgren said the rate of comp growth was less than the retailer expected, but that was due partly to uncertain economic news and the lingering effects of Superstorm Sandy.
"Last month was our fourth consecutive December with same-store sales growth, which is indicative of the sustainability of our key business strategies," said Lundgren. "While the rate of growth was somewhat less than we had expected in the first two months of the fourth quarter, it came amid some significant headwinds from uncertain economic news and the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy."

Meanwhile, Kohl’s saw same-store sales rise 3.4% in December, along with a total sales increase of 4%, falling below company expectations.  "December sales were lower than planned," said CEO Kevin Mansell. "Additionally, sales came late in the holiday shopping season and, as a result, were at deeper discounts than planned. We are taking the necessary markdowns in the fourth quarter to manage our inventory as we transition into the spring season."

Conversely, the late surge in holiday shopping helped many key retailers report better-than-expected sales in December with Costco, Gap and TJX Cos. were among the best performers.
Gap produced a 5% rise in December same-store sales, ahead of the 3.5% expected rise, and total sales for the five-week period ended Dec. 29 rose to $2.08 billion from $1.98 billion.

"Customers responded favorably to our product offerings and promotions during the holiday season overall," said Glenn Murphy, chairman and CEO.

By brand, Gap North America delivered a positive 2% increase against a prior year decline of 4%, Banana Republic North America delivered was up 1% and Old Navy North America gained 13%.

One of the weakest performances in the apparel category was turned by the struggling The Wet Seal, whose same-store sales plummeted 9.7%.

"December sales were below our expectations, driven mainly by lower than expected transactions throughout the month," the company said in a statement.

Other notable performances came from Zumiez, where December comps surged 15%, The Buckle, up a scant 1% and Hot Topic, up 4%. At Target, comps were essentially flat and below expectations for a low single digit increase for the second consecutive months. Family Dollar doesn’t report monthly sales but it made an exception on Thursday when it reported results for its first quarter and indicated that its December sales increased a worse than expected 2.5%.