TJX (NYSE:TJX), owner of the T.J. Maxx and Marshalls retail empires, has some bad news for its shareholders: Same-store sales for November fell 1%.

When I looked at last quarter's results, the expectation was for flat year-over-year earnings for 2005. Well, that projection was based on having the final quarter of the year chip in 1% to 2% same-store sales growth. While it is too early to say that earnings for the critical fourth quarter will be light, it is fair to say that the start out of the gate was a slow one.

Also starting slow were competitors Kohl's (NYSE:KSS) and Federated Department Stores (NYSE:FD), with 0.1% and 3.4% declines, respectively, in November same-store sales. But like TJX, Federated reports that sales strengthened late in the month and because of that are still expecting 1% to 2% same-store sales growth. So for now, it looks as though JTX's sales projection may still be on target.

That's not to say it's all doom and gloom for retailers. Target (NYSE:TGT), for one, posted a 2.6% increase in same-store sales last month, and J.C. Penney (NYSE:JCP) rang up a 3.6% increase in November same-store sales. While that doesn't look good next to Wal-Mart's (NYSE:WMT) 4.3% increase, it does say that shoppers are out there spending their money.

TJX's stock trades at 17.7 times trailing earnings. I'd say that's a tad rich for a company that is expected to grow earnings 14% a year for the next five years. But with a trailing return on equity of 40.3% (which greatly outpaces that of its rivals), the company has proved that it knows how to make a buck.

What's the bottom line? Same-store sales reflect the underlying strength of a retail operation. For the past two quarters, TJX has posted negative growth in this key metric. If this trend continues, I'd conjecture that investors can expect the stock to make little if any upward progress.

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Fool contributor W.D. Crotty does not own any shares in the companies mentioned. Click here to see The Motley Fool's disclosure policy.