Strings of holly are being hung and trees are lighting up, but it's still not beginning to look like Christmas for retailers. As we unwrap November's same-store sales reports, the Black Friday miracle that typically turns retailers' books from red to black looks like it came in the form of holiday hell this year instead.

But 'tis the season to be jolly, so I'll start with what little there was to celebrate. Wal-Mart and BJ's Wholesale (NYSE:BJ) were the winners out of the big-box players. With our economy officially in a recession and third-quarter consumer spending falling its largest amount in 28 years, consumers seem to be on a nationwide bargain hunt -- so much so that even the "posh" discounters like Costco (Nasdaq; COST) and Target (NYSE:TGT) aren't escaping the weakness.


November Same-Store Sales



BJ's Wholesale






On the mall front, the downward sales trend persisted despite desperate actions many retailers have taken to attract shoppers. With the exception of Buckle (NYSE:BKE), which has fascinatingly gotten through this consumer slowdown unscathed, sales were anything but festive.

After trekking out to the stores for some firsthand analysis recently, my Foolish colleagues Alyce Lomax and Dayana Yochim and I noted that mounds of inventory, the return of the almost-forgotten layaway option, and hefty markdowns didn't present a pretty landscape for retailers this holiday season. The figures below confirm our observations.


November Same-Store Sales





American Eagle (NYSE:AEO)




Abercrombie & Fitch


JC Penney (NYSE:JCP)




The holidays are always a joyous time of the year, but there's little cheer about these results. With tightening budgets and dissipating credit, Santa's sack is going to be a whole lot lighter this year. Merchandise is sitting idle on shelves, and stores are implementing dramatic sales tactics in an attempt to drive traffic into stores.

So if you thought the Grinch stole sales this holiday season, just wait till you see what he does to the bottom line when fourth-quarter results are announced.

The holiday season of 2008 may go down in history as one of the biggest nail-bitters in the last few decades. Motley Fool analysts have assessed the state of retail going into this critical season -- the stocks, sales strategies, consumer trends -- and identified the winners and losers at the mall and in investors' portfolios. Click here for the complete report.

Kristin Graham owns shares of American Eagle. American Eagle, Gap, and Costco are Stock Advisor selections. Wal-Mart and Gap have been recommended by Inside Value. The Fool owns shares of American Eagle. The Fool has a disclosure policy.