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Retail's Varied Results

November begins most retailers' fourth quarter, setting themselves up for what they hope will be a bountiful holiday shopping season. Today, a slew of retailers from discounters to specialty shops to department stores announced their November same-store sales results. Continued strength from some of the largest firms, coupled with more uneven results from others, left any particular trend hard to uncover.

Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) recorded a 3.9% increase, which was lower than expected from the powerhouse. Chic rival Target (NYSE: TGT  ) fared better with a 6.2% gain. Perhaps all those Isaac Mizrahi fashions are enticing shoppers to return to Tar-jay and shell out the green. Warehouse wholesaler Costco (Nasdaq: COST  ) performed best here, with its big honking 14% comps gain. Higher gasoline sales and the ongoing supermarket strikes in California are helping Costco's sales.

Both Sears (NYSE: S  ) and J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP  ) had a disappointing November, with Sears' comps down 3.2% and Penney's off 0.8%. Somewhat paradoxically, high-end department stores like Saks (NYSE SKS) and Nordstrom (NYSE: JWN  ) performed well, with Nordstrom's same-store sales up 7.4% and Saks' up 6.7%.

Among the specialty retailers, results were mixed, as usual. Gap (NYSE: GPS  ) continued its climb back to respectability with a comps gain of 6%. Teen surf fave Pacific Sunwear (Nasdaq: PSUN  ) shone brightly, with comps up 11.7%. Gadzooks (Nasdaq: GADZ  ) , on the other hand, disintegrated, with comps down a stunning 28.1%.

Preppy competitors American Eagle Outfitters (Nasdaq: AEOS  ) and Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF  ) continued to feel the pain together. American Eagle's comps dove 6.2%, while Abercrombie's were off a whopping 13%. That drop for Abercrombie was awful enough to send shares reeling 11% today.

Looking ahead to the rest of December, shareholders in these companies can try to gauge customer response by checking out their companies' stores at the local mall. Are they packed, or are their competitors doing brisker business? For retailers, which generally make the bulk of their profits in the third and fourth quarters, success here is critical. To get the real numbers on how December shakes out, check back on the first Thursday in January for December's same-store sales reports.

LouAnn Lofton owns shares of Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch. Costco is one of Tom Gardner'sMotley Fool Stock Advisorrecommendations.

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