Mixed Bag for Retail

October's a transition month for retailers, bridging back-to-school and the holidays. It's a time to clear fall goods and slowly start rolling out winter offerings, while making sure inventory levels are positioned for holiday demand. Unless you're lucky enough to be Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) or Costco (Nasdaq: COST  ) and benefit from the rush of Halloween candy and costume buying, October's usually ho-hum.

The latest rash of same-store sales reports for October reflects this, with discounters racking up big gains, and others announcing more varied outcomes. Wal-Mart and Costco both notched solid same-store sales increases -- Wal-Mart's were up 4.5% and Costco's, 11%.

For specialty retailers, an unseasonably warm October kept some shoppers from shelling out for winter coats and sweaters. The tax-rebate spending that spurred earlier months' results also trickled out, leaving retailers dry.

Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF  ) suffered a particularly painful October, with comps nosediving 14%, leading the teen retailer to lower expectations for its third-quarter earnings. Rival teenage fashioneer Wet Seal (Nasdaq: WTSLA  ) also experienced an ugly month, with comps dropping 9.7%. The story was the same for Aeropostale (NYSE: ARO  ) , whose comps were off 6.8%. And we saw what happened to American Eagle (Nasdaq: AEOS  ) yesterday.

So, where were the teenagers shopping? They all appeared to be snapping up the concert tees, Goth looks, and 1980s kitsch at Hot Topic (Nasdaq: HOTT  ) . There, same-store sales climbed 11.2%. Hot weather apparently doesn't hurt Hot Topic.

Gap (NYSE: GPS  ) , coming up for the first time during its recovery against a month of positive comps, eked out a 1% gain and raised expectations for the third quarter. Ann Taylor (NYSE: ANN  ) raised Q3 guidance, as well, following its 3.9% comps increase.

As usual, it was baby boomer retailer Chico's FAS (NYSE: CHS  ) that blew everyone else out of the water. Same-store sales for the Florida-based Chico's jumped an astonishing 20.6%, much better than the 12.7% expected.

All eyes now turn ahead to what retailers hope will be a very lucrative holiday shopping season. Early guesses are that folks will be spending more this year than in recent years, which is cause for cautious optimism. We'll just have to wait and see.

LouAnn Lofton owns shares of Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Costco was Tom Gardner's May 2002 recommendation in Motley Fool Stock Advisor.


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