Which Retailer Had the Best December?

It's the most wonderful time of the year for shoppers. The holiday insanity is dying down, loved ones have given a ton of gift money, and stores are unleashing epic sales while they tally up the books and get ready for a shiny new inventory. In the midst of unveiling sales of 50% and up, several stores have also released their earnings this week. Let's see how 2012 wrapped up for retailers, and just how promising 2013 could be.

Buckle
December was touch-and-go for teenswear distributor Buckle (NYSE: BKE  ) . The company ended 2012 with a 1% increase in comparable-store net sales, compared to December 2011, and its overall sales, $185 million, tallied 1.8% higher than the previous year. 

These figures are higher than four analyst predictions polled by Thomson Reuters, who predicted Buckle's income would have decreased by 0.3% from a year ago. With its heavy denim reliance, Buckle has long benefited by giving teenagers exactly what they want: an awesome pair of jeans. However, this month, the company seems to have (pardon the pun) buckled ever so slightly, and likely because of rising commodity prices.

Target
Even Target (NYSE: TGT  ) has a bad month every now and then. The company behind the red bull's-eye saw lower sales than expected in December. Earnings clocked in at $10.1 billion, up 0.8% from December 2011. This might look good, but reports also indicate that same-store sales were practically static. According to CEO Gregg Steinhafel, sales picked up near the end of the month due to the holidays, but they were not quite enough to overwhelm the slow revenue of the first three weeks. Target hopes to generate stronger revenue next quarter, however, by further upping the convenience, quirk, and quality factor in its products.

Limited
One company that didn't have a bleak December is Limited Brands (NYSE: LB  ) . Same-store sales surged for the company, with revenue moving up 3% compared to last December. Overall, monthly net sales were up 4% for December. Shareholders also enjoyed a stylish special dividend of $3 per share on Dec. 26, sneaking just under the deadline of potential tax hikes from the fiscal cliff. The bad news? Judging from the cash flow statement in the third quarter, it doesn't appear Limited built up its inventory at the same rate as last year. Whether this means lower overall sales during the fourth quarter or better inventory management remains to be seen, but it's something investors should watch during fourth-quarter earnings. 

Nordstrom
Nordstrom (NYSE: JWN  ) has mastered the delicate art of being two seemingly contradictory things at once: a high-end luxury retailer and a department store. But if you think its expensive merchandise is driving away consumers in a shaky post-recession economy, think again. Nordstrom enjoyed an 8.6% increase in its December same-store sales, compared to the same month in 2011, and its total retail sales were $1.72 billion compared to $1.57 billion last year.

Would you like your receipt in the bag?
The holiday season tends to be a merry time for many retailers, but because of the high standards they (and Wall Street) set for themselves, it can be hard to measure up to expectations. Customers' widespread fixation with online retail, of course, doesn't help bricks-and-mortar retailers when it comes to generating sales. Still, while some of these stores are struggling more than others, most still benefited from some same-store sales growth this month. Nordstrom took the holiday cake, though, by surging ahead not just in same-store growth but in revenue overall.

Looking ahead
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