NEW YORK -- Retailers' sales figures for November confirmed that many stores had only a modest start to the holiday shopping season, with sales leveling off as the Thanksgiving weekend wore on.
As merchants released their results yesterday, it was clear that the winners were those stores that heavily discounted over the Thanksgiving weekend, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and mid-priced department stores such as J.C. Penney Co. Inc. One of the biggest disappointments came from upscale Nordstrom Inc., usually a top performer.
''It is a little bit mixed," said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics LLC, a research firm in Swampscott, Mass. ''It looks like a very promotional environment." He noted that the steep markdowns at discounters last weekend may have taken away business from some apparel stores, particularly the high-end retailers.
Still, Perkins noted that two-thirds of the retailers that have reported their results so far beat analyst forecasts.
Analysts had been optimistic going into the season because gasoline prices have fallen from their September highs. The latest batch of upbeat economic data and a rebound in consumer confidence in November were encouraging signs that consumers might be more generous this holiday season.
But merchants do face big challenges this season -- although gas prices have fallen, they remain above last year's levels and home heating costs are also expected to be high this winter.
Wal-Mart, which stumbled last holiday season by not offering enough discounts, benefited by offering more markdowns this year. The world's largest retailer posted a same-store sales increase of 4.3 percent, matching estimates from analysts polled by Thomson Financial. Same-store sales are those from stores open at least a year, and are considered the best indicator of a retailer's health.
Wal-Mart's total sales increased 9.4 percent. Still, the discounter said it expects a modest same-store sales growth for December of 2 percent to 4 percent.
Costco reported a 6 percent gain last month in same-store sales. That was down from the 7.9 percent estimate. Costco's total sales rose 9 percent.
Nordstrom's same-store sales rose 2.8 percent, well off the 4.6 percent analysts expected. Total sales rose 5.8 percent.
Gap Inc. posted a 4 percent decrease in same-store sales, though the results were better than the 5.1 percent drop analysts forecast. Total sales rose were unchanged from a year ago.