In a shortened session Tuesday, major benchmarks opened higher but slipped into negative territory in the last hour of trading. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) and the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) both lost about half a percentage point.

Today's stock market

Index Percentage Change Point Change
Dow (0.54%) (132.36)
S&P 500 (0.49%) (13.49)

Data source: Yahoo! Finance.

Technology and financial shares led the late selling. The iShares PHLX Semiconductor ETF (NASDAQ:SOXX) fell 1.8% and the Financial Select Sector SPDR ETF (NYSEMKT:XLF) dropped 0.9%.

As for individual stocks, Acuity Brands (NYSE:AYI) and Herman Miller (NASDAQ:MLHR) both rose after beating earnings expectations. 

Falling stock graph with hand tracing it.

Image source: Getty Images.

Acuity Brands lights it up

Shares of lighting manufacturer Acuity Brands soared 12.8% after the company reported fiscal third-quarter sales and earnings that beat expectations. Net sales increased 5.9% to $944.0 million and adjusted earnings per share increased 10.2% to $2.37. Analyst expectations for the quarter, which have been lowered significantly in recent months, were for the company to earn $2.17 per share on sales of $899 million.

The sales jumped was due to an increase of volume of approximately 10% plus 1% attributable to acquisitions and exchange rates, but, as has been true in recent quarters, a customer shift to lower-priced products resulted in a 5% headwind. Adjusted gross margin was 41.6%, down 90 basis points from the period a year earlier.

"Third quarter profitability measures were negatively impacted by unfavorable changes in product prices and mix of products sold as well as higher selling, distribution, and administrative expenses," said CEO Vernon J. Nagel in the press release. "We took a number of actions this quarter to improve our profitability, including relaunching our Contractor Select portfolio of basic, lesser featured products at competitive price points to more effectively and profitably compete in that certain portion of the market."

Looking forward, the company expects prices to continue to fall in the lighting market, but thinks that demand will pick up in North America following several quarters of weakness. Investors were encouraged by the outlook after recent challenging quarters from the company.

Herman Miller reports steady growth

Office furniture seller Herman Miller reported strong sales and profit growth in its fiscal fourth quarter, and shares shot up 10.6%. Net sales increased 7.1% to $618 million, compared with the company's previous guidance for $590 million to $610 million. Adjusted EPS grew $0.02 to $0.66, well above the forecast of $0.56 to $0.60 given three months ago. Herman Miller also raised its quarterly dividend 9.7% to $0.1975.

Slowing sales to North American businesses were more than offset by international sales growth. North American sales declined 3.7% to $309.2 million, but international sales soared 35.4% to $125.4 million. Specialty and consumer sales both grew in double digits. Gross margin fell 140 basis points to 36.9%, however, and operating earnings dropped 19.5% from the period a year earlier to $40.1 million. Herman Miller's profit was boosted by a decline in its tax rate from 29.9% to 18.3%.

Looking forward, the company is expecting organic sales growth of about 6% in the first quarter of fiscal 2019, and EPS between $0.63 and $0.67, compared with $0.57 last year. "In our view, the overall macro-economic backdrop for our business is supportive for continued growth, although inflationary pressures remain an outlook risk for the business," said CFO Jeff Stutz in the press release.

Herman Miller admittedly set a low bar for itself three months ago, but order growth of 9.3% and strong international and consumer sales had investors believing that the company will be able to maintain its steady performance in coming quarters.