The nation's retailers turned in mixed and largely disappointing sales results during September as choosy consumers first put off shopping and then shunned many discount and specialty merchants.
Sales were "generally terrible, as expected," said Terrence McEvoy, a retail industry analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott Inc. He spoke after the big store owners announced their results Thursday.
Investors were clearly displeased, and punished the stocks of poorer performers, including J.C. Penney Co. and Talbots Inc. But Wall Street also rewarded those posting better sales, including Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Dayton Hudson Corp.
Apparel retailers generally remained in a rut that is now several years old, although the fortunes of some of the players changed, at least temporarily.
Limited Inc., whose sales have been in the tank for some time, posted a moderate improvement. But Talbots, the upscale women's clothing chain, which has been a strong performer until recently, had its second straight disappointing month.
Department store operators announced some of the best September results as they continued to take market share away from specialty and discount stores.
Overall, September's sales reflect what is now a fact of life for retailers: Frugal consumers are shopping only for what they need, when they need it.
That has made retailers particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather as well as the economy.
The Salomon Bros. retail index, the investment firm's barometer of sales performance, rose 3.3% after a 1.5% gain in August. In September, 1994, the index rose 3.9%.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said sales from stores open at least a year rose 4.2% from last September, while total sales were up 13.2%.
Sales from stores open at least a year, known as same-store sales, are considered the most accurate measure of a retailer's strength. They exclude the results of newer stores, where sales tend to be unusually high. Same-store sales also exclude results from stores closed over the past year.
Sears said same-store sales advanced 4.5% and overall sales rose 5%. Investors bid Sears stock up $1.25 a share to $36.625 on the New York Stock Exchange.
Kmart Corp. said same-store sales rose 4.1%, while overall business was up 3.2%.
Dayton Hudson said same-store sales rose 5.3% while overall business rose 12%. Wall Street responded to the good news by pushing Dayton Hudson stock up $1.875 to $74.50 on the NYSE.
Penney said same-store sales at its flagship stores fell 0.9%, while total sales rose 2%. The company's stock dropped 37.5 cents to $47.625 on the NYSE.
Federated Department Stores Inc. said its same-store sales rose 4.9%, while overall business rose 81.7%. The overall sales increase reflects Federated's acquisition of R.H. Macy & Co. Inc. in December, 1994.
May Department Stores Co. reported a 2.9% same-store sales gain and a 10.5% overall increase.
Limited reported same-store sales were up 1% while overall business rose 10%. Its stock rose 75 cents to $20 on the NYSE.
Gap Inc. said same-store sales rose 3%, while total sales rose 21%.
These results are narrower than the monthly retail sales report from the government, which includes sales from supermarkets, restaurants and car dealers. Those figures will be released Oct. 13.