U.S. retailers reported lackluster sales last month, raising concern about the prospects for the holiday shopping season. Costco Wholesale, Macy's owner...

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U.S. retailers reported lackluster sales last month, raising concern about the prospects for the holiday shopping season.

Costco Wholesale, Macy’s owner Federated Department Stores and Target missed analysts’ sales estimates. Sales growth slowed at luxury retailers Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. Comparable sales at Wal-Mart rose 4.3 percent compared with last year, in line with the company’s forecast.

Department stores suffered as consumers sought bargains and curbed spending amid higher gasoline prices. Companies that exceeded analysts’ estimates, including J.C. Penney and Limited Brands, cut prices to compete with Wal-Mart’s discounts on Thanksgiving weekend. Retailers may step up price reductions over the next several weeks to boost traffic during the pivotal month of December.

“This was not even by any stretch of the imagination a modest start to the season,” said Shayne John, who helps manage about $2.5 billion at NCM Capital Management, including Wal-Mart and Kohl’s shares. “This was a poor start to the season.”

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Costco, the largest U.S. warehouse-club retailer, said sales rose 6 percent, less than the 7.4 percent analysts expected.

Sales at Nordstrom rose 2.8 percent, less than the expected 5.1 percent.

Starbucks, the largest U.S. coffee-shop chain, said November sales at stores open more than a year rose 7 percent on demand for holiday drinks such as gingerbread lattes.

Federated, the second-largest U.S. department-store operator, said same-store sales fell 3.4 percent, the most in more than two years. The chain blamed disappointing results early in the month.

San Francisco-based Gap, the largest U.S. apparel chain, which has been struggling to find the right merchandise mix, had a 4 percent decline.

Increase for J.C. Penney

J.C. Penney, the third-largest department-store chain, had a 3.6 percent increase in same-store sales, more than the 2 percent gain analysts had expected. It offered diamond bracelets at half price and men’s and women’s sweaters at 60 percent off.

The International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) said Thursday sales rose 3.5 percent, less than the monthly average of 3.9 percent through October. The figure is based on data from 65 retail chains.

Shoppers who sought out deals on Black Friday, flocking to stores for so-called “doorbuster” specials, may be curbing spending on concern about higher energy prices.

“The consumer is still very cautious,” said Michael Niemira, ICSC chief economist. “There was underlying softness in November. It increases the worry about the holiday as a whole.”

Retailers will probably increase discounts during the rest of the holiday season, said Burt Flickinger, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a market-research company.

“It’s going to be a great year for consumers in terms of saving on their shopping, but it’s going to be a very mixed year for retailers and the bottom line,” he said.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, forecast a December sales gain of 2 to 4 percent, less than the 3 to 5 percent it had estimated for last month.

Target surpassed

The company’s faster sales growth last month allowed it to surpass Target in comparable sales for the first time since May 2004. Target, the No. 2 discount chain, said same-store sales rose 2.6 percent and it forecast a gain of 4 to 5 percent for this month.

Retailers that cater to teenagers and college students performed well, with the exception of American Eagle Outfitters, which had a gain of 1.7 percent.

Abercrombie & Fitch said sales surged 23 percent. Wet Seal said sales rose 52 percent. Aeropostale had a 7.3 percent gain.

Total sales rose 22 percent to $27.8 billion for the holiday weekend starting Nov. 25, driven by discount retailers, according to a National Retail Federation poll of about 4,200 consumers.

Retailers with stores in malls had a 0.4 percent gain to $16.8 billion, according to ShopperTrak, which measures traffic with more than 45,000 video devices.

The extent of the holiday promotions has raised concerns among investors that fourth-quarter profit will suffer.

“Unfortunately, sales do not necessarily mean good margins or earnings, and that’s where I think we are going to be in trouble,” said Patricia Edwards, who helps manage $6.4 billion at Wentworth, Hauser and Violich investment-management firm in Seattle.