November Sales: Up For The Rich, Not So Rosy For The Rest

As retail observers sifted through the mixed retail sales results for November, one thing was clear: Even more than usual, affluent Americans are going to be unwrapping way more presents than middle- and lower-income families.

The stores that turned in the strongest gains tended to be department stores and warehouse clubs, say Frank Badillo, director of the Retail Forward KnowledgeBase and senior economist for TNS Retail Forward, a consulting company based in Columbus, Ohio.

Retail Forward's index of leading retailers registered a 3.5% from the prior month and from the prior year. November's result is up from a 1.7% sales-weighted composite reported last month and up from the 2.8% composite reported in November 2006.

"We did see a bit of a bounce back, but when you drill down by segment, the gains are all skewed to upscale shoppers," he says, with results at most other stores confirming the general sense that this won't be a big-money fourth quarter. "We're definitely seeing that spending is constrained by consumers who are not able to get credit as easily in the past, or who are more wary of using credit."



At Macy's, for example, which has been struggling with disappointing results, same-store sales gained 13.4%, while Nordstrom posted a gain of 8.7%, and Saks Fifth Avenue saw its same-store results jump 25.7%. In its U.S. stores, Costco gained 6%, and Wal-Mart's Sam's Clubs gained 7.1%.

Yet lower-end discounters didn't fare nearly as well. At Target, same-store sales gained 1.1%, with execs warning it may not meet quarterly sales projections, and at Wal-Mart Stores, same-store sales rose just 1%. There were some big exceptions, though: Kohl's, which target middle-income shoppers, gained 10.2%.

And while there have been some indications that shoppers are waiting longer before spending, that too seems to split along the haves vs. have-nots line, says Badillo. "More affluent shoppers seem to have spent sooner, which is why we saw a drop-off in traffic and spending after Black Friday. But for households under duress, where there's more cautiousness about jobs and credit, people are holding back and waiting."

Reading the November tea leaves, "odds are that the sales pace will be weaker in December," says Badillo. "A lot of the last-minute shopping will be skewed to gift cards, which don't get recorded until gift cards are actually used. So I think in these final few weeks, we'll see weaker sales and no improvement, overall." Any strengths, he says, will continue to be "spotty, and skewed to certain segments. Right now, there's just not enough shopper demand to float all the boats among the retailers."

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