Mixed bag of December sales show U.S. chains' hits and misses

Thu Jan 3, 2013 7:42am EST

* Costco same-store sales up 9 pct, analysts' view 6.5 pct

* Limited same-store sales up 3 pct, Street view 4.5 pct

* Wet Seal sees loss at or near low end after sales drop

By Jessica Wohl

Jan 3 (Reuters) - Costco Wholesale Corp had a strong run-up to Christmas, but other chains posted disappointing December sales on Thursday, as the economy took a toll on shoppers in the most important quarter of the year for retailers.

Among the chains reporting December sales at stores open at least a year, Costco stood out early with growth that topped expectations. Limited Brands Inc's sales rose less than anticipated, marking a rare miss for the owner of the Victoria's Secret chain.

Wet Seal Inc's sales fell even more than analysts expected, leading it to expect a fourth-quarter loss at or near the bottom of its prior forecast.

Overall, analysts looked for 3.3 percent same-store sales growth for December across 17 chains, down from 4.2 percent growth in December 2011, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Same-store sales rose a disappointing 1.6 percent in November. In December 2008, same-store sales fell 3 percent, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

The holiday season was never expected to be stellar, but even the single-digit growth anticipated by chains and analysts came under pressure as Superstorm Sandy, the ever-present headlines about the "fiscal cliff" and the Connecticut school shootings affected consumers' moods.

Costco posted a 9 percent rise in December same-store sales, topping estimates for a 6.5 percent increase, boosted by an additional sales day in the reporting period. Higher fuel prices and a weaker dollar also helped.

Excluding the effects of fuel sales and foreign exchange, Costco posted an increase of 8 percent.

While Limited often tops expectations, in December its same-store sales rose 3 percent versus expectations of a 4.5 percent increase.

Wet Seal, which caters to teens, said same-store sales fell 9.7 percent. Analysts predicted the chain would have the weakest sales of any of the 17 chains reporting, but only anticipated a 5 percent decline.

Wet Seal now expects its fourth-quarter results to come in at or near the bottom of its forecast of a loss of 3 cents to 6 cents per share.