The outlook for the holiday-shopping season grew murkier yesterday as the nation's big retailers reported September sales figures that revealed...

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NEW YORK — The outlook for the holiday-shopping season grew murkier yesterday as the nation’s big retailers reported September sales figures that revealed consumers’ growing anxiety about the economy.

Americans struggling with higher gasoline prices and the economic fallout from Hurricane Katrina shopped for basics at discounters, and so retailers including Wal-Mart had a solid month. But they avoided spending on nonessential items, leaving many mall-based apparel stores disappointed.

The question now is how generous shoppers will be during the holiday season.

“Uncertainty is always bad for retailers,” said Michael Niemira, chief economist at The International Council of Shopping Centers. “And that uncertainty did not vanish with [yesterday’s] reports. We have the same worries about gasoline prices, home heating and the sustainability of consumer demand.”

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Niemira added that the only certainty is that the broad story hasn’t changed — teen retailers and high-end stores continue to do generally well.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales tally of 70 retailers rose a better-than-expected 4.0 percent in September, about the same pace merchants have seen all year, but Niemira warned that the sales figures don’t tell the whole story. The tally is based on same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year.

“Overall, the numbers look OK on the surface, but they mask a lot of the story line, and the story line is probably not as positive as the numbers look,” he said. “It is a very mixed reading.”

Richard Hastings, senior retail analyst at Bernard Sands, expects that this holiday season will be the most heavily discounted since 2002.

“We are starting to see some cooling off of the overall consumer attitude. And that is occurring when the weather has been so bad,” he said.

Wal-Mart, which had seen its sales slow amid higher gasoline prices for months, had an easier time in September. The world’s largest retailer had a 3.8 percent increase in same-store sales, matching the consensus forecast of analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial. Total sales rose 9.7 percent.

Target had a 5.6 percent gain in same-store sales, better than the 4.9 percent estimate. Total sales rose 11.4 percent.

Costco reported an 11 percent increase in same-store sales, helped by the rise in gas prices. Excluding the effects of gas-price inflation, same-store sales would have been up 8 percent. Analysts had expected a 6.7 percent gain. Total sales rose 13 percent.

High-end stores posted decent gains, though Nordstrom posted a more modest same-store sales increase of 4.1 percent, below the 4.4 percent estimate. Total sales rose 6.4 percent.

Neiman Marcus had a robust 9.6 percent same-store sales increase, better than the 6 percent estimate. Total sales rose 9.2 percent.

Among other department stores, Federated Department Stores, which owns Macy’s, had a modest 1.3 percent increase, above the 0.6 percent forecast. Total sales rose 89.6 percent, but included business from the acquisition of May Department Stores that was completed Aug. 30.

J.C. Penney had a 1.4 percent gain in same-store sales in its department stores, a bit below the 1.5 percent Wall Street estimate. Total sales rose 1.9 percent.

Limited Brands had a 2 percent decline in same-store sales, matching Wall Street estimates. Total sales rose 1 percent.

Gap suffered a 6 percent same-store sales drop, though that was better than the 7.2 percent anticipated. Total sales fell 3 percent.

Teen retailers generally fared well.

Abercrombie & Fitch did well, reporting a 21 percent increase in same-store sales in September. Analysts had expected 16.4 percent. Total sales rose 21 percent. But Hot Topic struggled with a 5.6 percent decline in same-store sales, better than the 6.4 percent drop analysts expected. Total sales rose 8 percent.

American Eagle Outfitters reported a 13 percent increase in same-store sales for September, surpassing the 10.7 percent estimate. Total sales rose 20.9 percent.