Sept. results are mixed Christmas outlook tepid; Some large firms report rising sales; others fall

THE BALTIMORE SUN

U.S. retailers sent conflicting signals in September; yesterday they reported modest monthly sales gains and losses that analysts said could spell another tepid Christmas season.

"It's a mixed bag," said Mark A. Millman, president of Millman Search Group Inc., a national retail consultant in Lutherville.

"It appears the general economy is in a breathing pattern where people feel a little more comfortable about their careers and livelihoods.

"It appears they're starting to rethink and reopen their pocketbooks, but obviously, they're being selective. They haven't opened the floodgates yet."

Sales in stores open at least a year, a key gauge of performance called same-store sales, rose 7 percent at Sears, Roebuck & Co., but fell 1.3 percent at Dayton Hudson Corp., the parent company of Target Stores.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer, registered a 5.6 percent increase in same-store sales, but rival Kmart Corp. lost 0.8 percent.

Hechinger Co., the Largo-based home-improvement chain, didn't fare much better, reporting flat same-store sales in September.

"What's going on is, consumer spending is in the process of down-scaling," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report, a forecasting firm in Scotch Plains, N.J.

"By that, I simply mean that consumers are buying less, and what they do buy costs less. They're buying fewer items. Americans today don't have that many discretionary spending dollars in their pockets."

Specialty retailers also reported uneven numbers. Gap Inc. reported a flat month; the Limited Inc. showed a 6 percent gain.

Some upscale retailers scored well for the month, including Neiman-Marcus, which saw same-store sales jump 7.1 percent. The upswing in higher-priced items has been attributed to a surging stock market, stabilizing interest rates and a lull in corporate downsizing.

But expectations remain modest for the rest of the year, analysts say. Even those retailers reporting positive numbers this month may not be doing as well as it seems because sales figures are being compared with last year's dismal numbers.

"No clear trend as far as I'm concerned -- the numbers are all over the place," said Sally Wallick, an analyst with Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc.

"This month, it seems to me, and August was the same way, there is just no clear trend. One thing it suggests is that right now, the individual companies, what they're doing is important as opposed to some underlying level of demand out there with the consumer."

For Christmas, Wallick said, "we're left still with a lot of uncertainty."

Pub Date: 10/11/96

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