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Retailers Are Foundering A Bit As They Enter New Year

By Karen Talley Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES NEW YORK -(Dow Jones)- Signaling a rocky start to the year, retailers are saying that business is spotty and issuing an unusually large amount of earnings warnings. The outlooks are chalked up to everything from warm weather to increased promotions and now, with Tuesday's round of warnings, global economic conditions. The commentary comes at a crucial time for retailers, which want to at least start the year with a clean slate, but find their troubles are likely to linger. "I have to believe holiday results have put them on their guard for 2012," said Margaret Whitfield, retail analyst at Sterne Agee. Holiday sales tallied in the fourth quarter can account for one-fifth or more of annual revenue for retailers and are a major barometer of the willingness of all types of retailers to spend. But with the fourth quarter ending for most retailers at the close of this month, negative earnings announcements are running at more than double the pace they did in last year's fourth quarter, according to Thomson Reuters. Out of the 117 retailers that have provided guidance, 76 now expect to miss those projections, only 33 expect to exceed them and the rest are in-line with their outlooks. The latest round of alerts were led by Tiffany & Co. (TIF), which on Tuesday cut its full-year earnings forecast following a holiday season dampened by conservative holiday spending in the U.S. and Europe. The warning added to worries that economic uncertainties in the regions have severely dampened demand from luxury shoppers. Lower-priced jewelry purveyor Signet Jewelers Ltd. (SIG) also gave a cautious profit target while Zale Corp. (ZLC) said it anticipates lower operating margin amid higher marketing costs. Also on Tuesday, consumer electronics retailer Hhgregg Inc. (HGG) cut its full-year earnings estimate, citing lower-than-expected margins in the video category and increased spending on advertising to gain market share and launch its mobile category. And Jones Group Inc. (JNY) reduced its fiscal 2011 revenue guidance and expects fiscal first-quarter revenue to fall short of analysts' estimate due to its need to increase promotions. The owner of brands such as Nine West, Jones New York and RachelRoy also cut its full-year revenue projection. There were some bright spots Tuesday, with yoga-wear maker Lululemon Athletica Inc. (LULU) bumping up its guidance for the current fourth quarter after revenue for the period got a boost from an increase in inventory. And shoe retailer DSW Inc. (DSW) raised its full-year guidance for the fourth time, with plans to accelerate its new-store-opening plans due to the strength of its holiday sales. But most of the news has been downbeat. In same-store sales delivered for the holiday month of December, Target Corp. (TGT) missed its goal with a 1.6% rise in sales, leading it to cut its profit forecast. Kohl's Corp. (KSS) posted a 0.1% drop in same-store sales and also reduced its fourth-quarter earnings view. The department-store chain cited sluggish sales of cold-weather wear because of unseasonably warm temperatures during the holiday season. J.C. Penney Co. (JCP) posted a 0.3% rise in comparable-store sales, softer than the company had expected, and cut its profit outlook. American Eagle Outfitters Inc. (AEO) slashed its fiscal-fourth-quarter earnings outlook after it was forced to offer more aggressive promotions to drive late holiday sales. -By Karen Talley, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2196; karen.talley@dowjones.com

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