If it's true that misery loves company, apparel merchant Talbots (NYSE:TLB) must feel pretty lonely these days.

The retailer, known for its classic women's clothing, saw its January same-store sales dip 11.8%. Talbots also announced that fourth-quarter comps dropped 4.7%, and full-year comps were down 3.8%. The dour announcement came on the heels of last month's shaky holiday season that prompted the firm to lower its Q4 guidance to around $0.39 per share, a 19% drop from 2002's Q4 earnings.

This performance might not look so bad if Talbots' peers were languishing as well. But that's not the case. Overall, retailers are off to a great start this year, together pulling in a 5.8% comps increase over last January. The upward trend extended across stores of all types and price ranges.

Talbots' crummy comps were alleviated by slightly better fourth-quarter and full-year sales results. But by slightly better, I mean flat to low-single-digit increases. The latest excuses from management must be pretty unsatisfying to shareholders. "Soft selling of Fall/Holiday clearance merchandise," as reported in the press release, isn't an explanation for underperformance. It's a description of the problem.

The situation is even more unforgivable because last fall, Talbots was supposed to be planning for a big holiday season through store openings and television and print advertising. But the retailer keeps missing its mark with customers.

Affluent women certainly haven't stopped shopping, but they're not shopping at Talbots like they used to. If you're wondering where they've migrated to, check out Ann Taylor's (NYSE:ANN) and Chico's FAS' (NYSE:CHS) ongoing strong reports.

For its part, Talbots is hoping that the spring sun shines on its stores, bringing customers back. It's planning yet another marketing campaign, hoping to spur demand for its spring clothes. We'll have a better idea of how the campaign's working out, and how spring's shaping up for Talbots, over the coming months as it reports its same-store sales. Stay tuned for more.

Seth Jayson once attended a cocktail party in a classy little Talbot's dress. The film has been burned. Reach him via email.