Retailers pulled no punches in November, slashing prices, opening during the Thanksgiving holiday, blitzing online shoppers with deals well before Black Friday and offering perks such as price-matching and free shipping.
But all their efforts couldn't keep same-store sales for the month from missing expectations for a 3% year-over-year increase. Instead, the industry posted an anemic 1.9% increase, data firm Retail Metrics reported, calling the disappointing figures "early lumps of coal in retailers' stockings."
The numbers exclude the Gap and Zumiez chains, which are reporting their November after the stock market closes.
The Thanksgiving-weekend blowout bargains and heavy marketing received a cool reception from shoppers -- which doesn't bode well for the remainder of the holiday season, according to analysts.
Retailers are already a week into the shortest Thanksgiving-to-Christmas time span in a decade. Several retailers, including Express, Guess, Wet Seal and Dollar General have issued pessimistic forecasts for the fourth quarter.
Even consistently strong post-recession performers, such as Costco, missed predictions. L Brands, which owns Victoria's Secret, reported a 5% drop in same-store sales -- its first decline in four years.
Ken Perkins, who compiles the Retail Metrics data, said the sprint to Christmas will be "highly competitive," with many retailers offering even deeper discounts than the 50%-off promotions that proved most compelling over the Black Friday weekend.
A separate gauge from Thomson Reuters found retail sales rising just 1.8% from the same month last year, falling short of projections for a 2.7% boost. Stripped of drugstores, same-store sales managed only a 1% uptick, compared with the expected 2.3% increase.
Analysts had expected the apparel sector to be weak. But instead of the 0.5% drop they anticipated, the segment sank 3.6%, according to Thomson Reuters.
Independent calculations by the International Council of Shopping Centers were only slightly more attractive. The trade group said that sales at U.S. chain stores were up 2.1% for the month, or 3% without the effects of gasoline sales.
"Sales were constrained by weak apparel sales this month," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist for the group. "November was a very competitive environment for retailers, and the softness in the November tally suggests some cautiousness by consumers."
Niemira, however, said he anticipates shoppers to return in force this month to complete the two-thirds of gift-buying they have left. The ICSC predicted a 3% to 4% year-over-year swell for December.
Many analysts have accused Thanksgiving of cannibalizing sales normally attributed to Black Friday without adding to overall sales over the weekend.
A Thursday report from MasterCard Advisors found retail sales on the holiday surged nearly 34% compared to 2012, while the increase on Black Friday was less than 3%.
Over the two days, sales were up 8%. Online revenue boomed 19.4% on Thanksgiving while increasing 12% the next day, according to MasterCard.
The retail sector suffered the heaviest job cutting of any industry in November, according to consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas on Thursday.
American employers shed 45,314 jobs last month – and 9,998 came from retailers, according to Challenger. But the decline isn't a precursor of a wretched holiday – Challenger said that most retail cuts were related to the closure of Blockbuster video rental stores and of the Dominick's grocery chain around Chicago.