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Weak start to November hits some big retailers

By Jessica Wohl

(Reuters) - Weak sales at leading U.S. retailers in early November dragged down their results for the month as the effects of major Northeast storms offset brisk activity over the long Thanksgiving weekend.

Retailers on average reported a 1.6 percent increase in sales at stores open at least a year, about half the 3.3 percent rise that analysts had forecast and below a year-earlier gain of 3.5 percent, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Target Corp and Macy's Inc, two of the biggest companies to report monthly sales on Thursday, missed analysts' expectations. Both saw weakness at the beginning of November, when superstorm Sandy and another storm hit the Northeast.

"We would probably have seen just blockbuster numbers had it not been for Sandy and the nor'easter, the back-to-back storms in the Northeast," said Alison Paul, U.S. retail and distribution leader and vice chairman for advisory and consulting firm Deloitte.

The two storms and resulting massive power outages and damage "really wiped out a week or two of any retail activity in the most populated part of the country," she said.

In addition, increased online shopping and layaway sales hurt November results, said International Council of Shopping Centers Chief Economist Michael Niemira.

Retailers do not book layaway sales until they are fully paid for and do not book online sales until the products are shipped. Niemira expects both layaway and online shopping to help same-store sales in December.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc's Walmart, Sears Holdings Corp's Kmart and Toys R Us - none of which report monthly sales - have been promoting layaway this season.

Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, was reportedly the biggest online shopping day ever, but came after the November sales period ended.

Kohl's Corp posted a surprising drop in November same-store sales, and its shares fell more than 9 percent. It said strong online sales late in the month would fall largely in December's sales tally.

Meanwhile, Tiffany & Co lowered its fiscal-year forecast yet again after quarterly same-store sales fell in Asia.

Sales were weak in the company's least expensive category, silver jewelry, suggesting price-conscious shoppers were hesitant to spend. Tiffany shares fell more than 6 percent.

The Standard & Poor's 500 retail index was down 0.4 percent on Thursday, while the broader S&P 500 index rose 0.3 percent.

HOLIDAY SPENDING

Sales for the November-December holiday season look set to rise 4.1 percent to $586.1 billion this year after a 5.6 percent increase in 2011, according to a National Retail Federation forecast given weeks before the Northeast storms. Other forecasts also hover around 4 percent.

During the long Thanksgiving weekend, sales rose 12.8 percent to $59.1 billion, compared with a 16.4 percent jump for the comparable weekend in 2011, according to an NRF survey.

"I think it's going to be a solid holiday, but we're not going to break any records," said Madison Riley, managing director at retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon.

Deloitte still expects a 3.5 percent to 4 percent rise in holiday sales, Paul said.

The ICSC predicted that December same-store sales would rise 4 percent to 4.5 percent, and expects overall same-store sales for the November-December period to be up 3 percent.

Discounts reign during the holiday season, with retailers hoping that customers who come in for deals such as Thanksgiving weekend "doorbusters" also pick up items that are not heavily marked down.

"I think a lot of that consumer activity was focused on the doorbusters," Riley said. "It may be a bit of a squeeze from a margin standpoint."

Big-box chains that offered deals on Thanksgiving night may have done better than mall-based apparel stores that opened later, Paul said.

Retailers may need to resort to more discounting next month.

"It appears that December will be highly promotional across the industry, as many retailers have missed November," said Janney Capital Markets analyst David Strasser.

Despite the largest-volume Thanksgiving weekend in Macy's Inc's history, the department store operator was not able to overcome November's weak start, Chief Executive Officer Terry Lundgren said in a statement.

Macy's posted an unexpected same-store sales decline, but is on track for a "very strong" performance in the current, holiday quarter, Lundgren said. The company's shares fell 2.3 percent.

Target's 1 percent decline in same-store sales stemmed from weakness in the first two weeks of November, CEO Gregg Steinhafel said in a statement. Sales picked up later in the month, and profitability was as planned, Steinhafel added.

Limited Brands Inc said its same-store sales had risen 5 percent, including a hit of one to two percentage points from Sandy. Analysts expected just a 3.1 percent increase.

Gap Inc's comparable sales rose less than expected. However, all of the company's brands did better than last year, led by a turnaround at Old Navy, which lured shoppers with items such as $15 jeans and $5 fleece jackets on the day after Thanksgiving.

Same-store sales at Costco Wholesale Corp, the biggest chain that issues monthly reports, rose a better-than-expected 6 percent, the warehouse club chain said on Wednesday.

The overall November results are from 16 retailers and exclude Zumiez Inc, which is set to report later on Thursday.

(Reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago; Additional reporting by Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Chicago, and Dhanya Skariachan and Phil Wahba in New York; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

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