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November sales offer reason for optimism

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NEW YORK — Consumers were ready to spend in November and retail sales surged, boosting hopes for a strong holiday season.

Consumers were ready to spend in November and retail sales surged, boosting hopes for a strong holiday season.

Based on a weighted composite of 30 retailers, Kantar Retail reported a 6% same-store sales increase, sharply better than the 1.7% rise reported in October and the weak 0.9% uptick in November 2009. The Kantar figure does not include Walmart, which stopped reporting monthly sales in April 2009, nor Walgreens, which reported a day later.

A survey of a similar number of retailers by Thomson Reuters yielded an identical percentage increase, which soared past the consensus forecast of a 3.6% rise among analysts polled by the news service. It was the biggest increase Thomson Reuters has reported since September 2006, although it was matched in November 2007.

Kantar acknowledged that the impressive lift owed a lot to a highly promotional environment and easy comparisons against the prior year. Good weather also helped the turnout.

Nonetheless, consumer attitudes and behavior appear to have changed significantly.

"Shoppers have been shaking off their recent cautiousness about spending, and any last doubts may have been removed by all the great deals that came early and often in November," said Frank Badillo, senior economist for Kantar. "The rest of the holiday looks positive, given shoppers’ spending plans, but they will no doubt be looking for more big promotions to sustain this kind of spending pace."

The gains were shared by almost all trade classes, although department stores enjoyed the biggest increases among brick-and-mortar retailers.

In the mass market realm, Target Corp. received a pleasant surprise as comparable-store sales grew 5.5%, well ahead of the 3.7% increase expected by analysts.

"November sales were better than expected, driven by very strong guest traffic throughout the month," said Gregg Steinhafel, chairman, president and chief executive officer.

Comparable-store sales at Costco Wholesale Corp. took a 9% jump that was driven by a 13% rise at its international warehouses, while domestic outlets grew their comp-sales 7%. Analysts expected a 6.2% ­increase.

Excluding the impact of gasoline price inflation and currency exchange, the company and its U.S. warehouses managed a 6% increase while international locations achieved an 8% rise.

Analyst Mark Miller of William Blair & Co. raised his earnings estimates for both Target and Costco, citing increases in customer traffic and average transaction at Target and a higher average ring at Costco. "Target saw strength in food (up mid-teens) as the company is benefiting from 25% of stores now in the P-Fresh format," wrote Deutsche Bank analyst Bill Dreher in a research note.

Another club operator, BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc., also enjoyed a good month, as comparable-club results gained 5%, ahead of the 3.9% improvement projected by analysts. Factoring out gasoline sales, comp-club merchandise sales advanced 3.8%.

According to management, sales rose every week of the month and in all major regions, led by the Southeast. Excluding gasoline, customer traffic grew about 3% while the average transaction expanded about 1%.

On a category basis, the strongest increases came in such food segments as candy, cheese, dairy, deli, frozen food, meat, milk produce and prepared food. On the general merchandise side, domestics, electronics, household chemicals, housewares, small appliances, trash bags and video games all did well.

Regional discounters also fared well, helped by easy comparisons against a dreadful November 2009. Fred’s Inc., for example, booked a 4.7% gain in comparable-store sales compared with a 3.3% drop a year ago. "Fred’s comparable-store sales for November and Black Friday exceeded the top end of our expectations, reflecting increased traffic throughout the month," said Bruce Efird, chief executive officer.

Among drug chains, Walgreen Co. reported a solid 3.2% increase in comparable stores (which do not include the Duane Reade stores acquired in April) for the month.

Comparable-store front-end sales expanded 1.5% , but Walgreens’ pharmacy business did better, despite comparisons against a year-ago period that benefited from H1N1 virus vaccinations. Comparable-pharmacy sales rose 4.2%, as a calendar shift added 2.3 percentage points, helping offset a negative impact of 3.3 points from generic drug introductions and 1.1 points due to the lower incidence of flu and colds.

"Considering the warm weather around much of the country and a lack of flu virus circulating, we’re pleased we have provided more seasonal flu shots than we did at this point last year, when we ran out of flu vaccine supply in mid-October," said Kermit Crawford, president of Walgreens’ pharmacy services.

The surprisingly strong results for November lifted hopes for a strong holiday season.

"Consumer spending momentum appears very strong, temperatures are expected to be seasonal and record-breaking Cyber Monday sales will be included in December sales," noted Dreher, who expects Christmas sales to approach 2.4%, the upper end of his projected increase.


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