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Shopping outlook is cloudy

Big retailers express concern about the ’04 holiday season

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NEW YORK — The outlook for the holiday shopping season grew more uncertain Thursday as the nation's largest retailers reported they had a fourth straight month of tepid sales in September.

High gasoline prices and grocery bills and ongoing job insecurity prompted many consumers to again limit their spending. The disappointing results came from retailers across the industry, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Gap Inc., Federated Department Stores Inc., and J.C. Penney Co. Inc.

"There's definitely some anxiety out there on the part of consumers," said Ken Perkins, a research analyst at RetailMetrics LLC, a research firm in Cambridge, Mass.

The uninspiring sales results contributed to a down day on Wall Street, as the Dow Jones industrial average fell 114.52, or 1.1 percent, to 10,125.40.

Broader stock indicators were also sharply lower. The Standard & Poor's 500 index was down 11.40, or 1 percent, at 1,130.65, and the Nasdaq composite index lost 22.51, or 1.1 percent, to 1,948.52.

Low- and middle-income Americans in particular have been forced to cut spending on clothing and other non-necessities as gas and food prices rise. They're also nervous about jobs — last week, the Conference Board reported that job worries helped push consumer confidence down in September for the second month in a row.

Retailers also attributed the lackluster sales to the hurricanes that ravaged Florida and the Southeast in late August and the first half of September, forcing many stores to close. Some merchants reported that unseasonably warm weather in the Midwest and other parts of the country curbed sales of fall merchandise.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales tally of 71 retailers was up 2.4 percent, slightly better than the 2 percent increase that was forecast. The results were higher than the 1.3 percent gain in August, but well off the average 6 percent increase of January through May. The tally is based on what the industry calls same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year. They are considered the best indicator of a retailer's performance.

The disappointing sales streak left retailers concerned about the holiday season, when many stores hope to bring in as much as half their annual sales. While consumers will be out shopping for the holidays, even a minor downward adjustment in spending by each household can add up to billions in lost business for retailers.

John Morris, senior retail analyst at Harris Nesbitt, noted that Thursday's results send "mixed messages across the landscape of the mall" on how the holiday season will fare.

"There are some positive reads for teens, cautious reads for the women's adult apparel," he added. "Upscale retailers are holding their own, but it is anyone's guess how much longer that echelon can be insulated from signs of a consumer slowdown."

While the back-to-school season is not necessarily a harbinger for the holiday season, it does indicate consumers' willingness to spend. In 2003, retailers had strong back-to-school sales, but struggled in October and November, only to be saved by a last-minute shopping spree right before and after Christmas.

Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, predicts same-store sales increases of 3 to 4 percent for the holiday period. That compares with a 4 percent increase in 2003.

The National Retail Federation projects total retail sales, which exclude restaurant and auto sales, to increase 4.5 percent for the November-December period, below the 5.1 percent gain of a year earlier.

September's retail results came as the government offered hope that the job recovery may be gaining some momentum. The Labor Department said the number of new people signing up for unemployment insurance benefits dropped by a seasonally adjusted 37,000 to 335,000, the lowest level since the beginning of September. In the prior three weeks, claims had increased, partly due to the impact of the hurricanes.

Wall Street is anxiously awaiting September job growth figures due out today.