It happens to every company sooner or later: Somebody sets a mark for quarterly earnings or monthly sales numbers, and the company misses that goal. Whether the target was set by the company's own management, by Wall Street analysts, or by the market at large, that miss can have serious consequences. Sometimes an earnings stumble is a signal to sell, but digging in the dirt is also a good way to find turnaround candidates while they're getting beaten down. This week, we're taking a look at retailers that found lumps of coal in their December comps reports. It's a wholesale fire sale, a boy among men, and a not-so-sharp image. Let's dig in!

I'm going clubbing
The first shortfall comes from wholesale club operator BJ's Wholesale Club (NYSE:BJ). The company reported December same-store sales just 0.6% above last year's take. That's disappointing by any measure -- especially since inflation was 2% over the interceding year. This means that its sales dropped if you account for the lower value of a dollar.

BJ's did what most retailers do in a weak market -- broke out the deep discounts. That kept consumers coming into stores, but it also put a chokehold on gross margins. The warehouse chain said that quarterly earnings would suffer a hit of about $0.19 per share to account for the sacrifices made in December, announced that it will discontinue all in-store pharmacy operations, and fired the heads of marketing and merchandising.

Ouch. Is management overreacting? Well, the last month of the year is supposed to be the saving grace for any retailer, as holiday sales rack up especially high revenue and profit numbers. But all of these problems add up to new fourth-quarter earnings guidance of only $0.17 to $0.25 per share. Compare that to the original $0.83-to-$0.87-per-share outlook. The full-year guidance took a 37% hit.

It's tough to compete with the massive purchasing power of Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and its Sam's Club warehouses in every market you enter, and Costco (NASDAQ:COST) brings another wrinkle to the marketplace with its people-centric philosophy. Sam's Club comps came in at 3.5% this time, soundly thumping BJ's results, but both wholesalers had to yield to the 9% same-store growth at Costco. Sharpening the company's focus is a good start, and we'll see how the new M&M executives work out. In the meantime, this market has a clear leader, and BJ's ain't it.

These sales are hot, hot, hot!
That brings us to kids' apparel peddler Children's Place (NASDAQ:PLCE), our second disappointment of the week. Its 5% same-store growth looks good next to BJ's, but pales in comparison to the 15% shot in the arm at competitor Gymboree (NASDAQ:GYMB). It's also below the company's 11% comps growth in December 2005, and the 13% year-to-date pace it had set up until November. Analysts thought they'd see about 8.2% higher sales.

It was a disappointing performance from a perennial all-star. Management pinned the blame on unseasonably warm weather, which put the brakes on winter clothing revenues. That led to plenty of deep-discount sales, and we've already discussed what that means. But you don't see Gymbo the Clown complaining about hot weather. What's going on here?

Children's Place has a hit on its hands with the reimagined Disney Store chain, which it took over from Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) a couple of years ago. That segment produced a somewhat sharper 7% December comps boost, and it stands at 15% for the year overall. But perhaps management has become complacent at the end of a very good year. Gymboree, on the other hand, installed a new CEO just a year ago, and Matthew McCauley looks like he's out to prove his worth. The company has a new, tighter marketing focus, and it's drawing its Play & Music customers into retail stores in a way the old management team never did. Children's Place can't draw on a comparable pool of intersegment resources.

I don't think Children's Place's slow period is any reason to sell your shares, though. The company habitually produces great results, as the full-year figures show. I'm betting it'll get back on track sooner rather than later. As Children's Place clears out those shelves full of unsold winter merchandise to get a fresh start in spring, Foolish investors might enjoy the buy-in opportunity created when shortsighted traders dropped the stock price by 7% overnight on the release of these numbers. If you've got to worry about something, worry about the company's delayed SEC filings. Alas, it seems that even a kiddie retailer can get bitten by the options-accounting bug these days.

Duller image
We're closing out this whirlwind tour of the malls with a peek at Sharper Image (NASDAQ:SHRP). The eclectic gadgetry seller didn't grow at all. In fact, comparable-store revenues dropped 20% year over year. Consumers seem to have lost their lovin' feeling for Sharper Image now that comparable trinkets are on sale over at Wal-Mart or the leading big-box electronics stores. And even as other troubled retailers increasingly point to improving online sales as their bright spots, Sharper Image's Internet sales were down by an even steeper 22%.

Unfortunately, these drops aren't a one-shot aberration -- they're right in line with the company's annual trend. To make matters worse, the company expects to take a $19 million charge for 10 years of mispriced options to three top executives. To put that number into perspective, the company's largest-ever annual profit was $23.1 million for the 2004 fiscal year. Its last 10-Q filing covered the quarter ended April 30, and at that time, the trailing 12-month bottom line was a $23.3 million heap of red-ink sorrows.

Sharper Image's era may have come and gone. Once a market darling, it now needs some serious rethinking of its corporate strategy to get its business back on track. A couple of deep-discount sales won't do it this time.

Don't forget your coupons
Some of these underperformers are victims of larger circumstances, while others might have only themselves to blame. It's up to you to decide which down-on-their-luck companies should be able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and which really are stuck in the mud. Come back next Monday, and we'll take a look at another batch of mishaps and disappointments. It'll be fun and educational.

Further Foolish reading:

Seeking great deals on unfairly punished stocks? Philip Durell and his merry band of Fools at the Motley Fool Inside Value newsletter service are standing by to help you find great stocks at ridiculously low markdowns. Try a 30-day trial subscription to see whether bargain-hunting is right for you. Wal-Mart is one of the stocks you'll find inside. Disney and Costco live in the neighboring Motley Fool Stock Advisor newsletter. Try that one, too!

Fool contributor Anders Bylund is a Disney shareholder but holds no other position in the companies discussed this week. However, he feels that the amount of money his family spends at Children's Place and Gymboree should entitle him to a piece of the action. The Fool has a disclosure policy, and you can see Anders' current holdings for yourself.