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Wal-Mart's disappointing outlook sets stage for price wars

NEW YORK - A disappointing sales performance and outlook from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Thursday raised the possibility of price wars this holiday season - a boon to consumers but a troubling prospect for the entire retail industry.

''The news from Wal-Mart is definitely discouraging,'' said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics LLC, a research company in Swampscott, Mass. ''They are going to be very price aggressive. And it is going to have an effect on everyone. It is going to force other retailers to cut their prices, which in turn will squeeze their profit margins.''

The world's largest retailer, whose sales were dragged down by a failed women's fashion strategy that went too trendy and by disruptions from a store remodeling program, said it will be using price as a weapon in such areas as toys and electronics to drive holiday sales.

The latest development from Wal-Mart came as the nation's retailers reported mixed October sales, the result of consumers taking a breather after going on a buying spree in September.

Other retailers with lackluster results included BJ's Wholesale Club Inc., as well as Pier I Imports Inc. and Gap Inc. Meanwhile, department stores scored again, with robust results from such companies as Federated Department Stores, J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and Saks Inc.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales tally rose 3 percent in October, less than the 4 percent gain in September. The tally is based on same-store sales, or sales opened at stores opened at least a year. Same-store sales are considered the best indicator of a retailer's health.

Still, Perkins believes shoppers will regain their stride during the holiday shopping season. Consumers have been resilient even when energy prices soared earlier in the year. The decline in gas prices that began in late summer has helped ease the financial pain consumers have felt.

Analysts are still sticking with their forecasts for robust holiday sales gains, though not as strong as a year ago. The National Retail Federation projected a 5 percent gain in total holiday retail sales for the November-December period, less than the 6.1 percent in the year-ago period.

But consumers' willingness to spend depends largely on their job security. While the job market has been steady, recent monthly reports from the Labor Department have showed slower growth. And consumers' confidence, while still high, weakened in October, dragged down by their concerns about the job market, according to the Conference Board.

The latest report on jobless claims released Thursday raised concerns about whether the slowing economy is finally pushing companies to lay off workers. The Labor Department said the number of newly laid off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly surged last week to the highest level in more than three months.

Wal-Mart, which should have benefited from falling gasoline prices, reported a meager 0.5 percent gain in October same-store sales; it was hurt by its namesake division, which eked out a 0.3 percent gain. Sam's Club had a 2.0 percent same-store sales gain. A big problem at Wal-Mart was that it overstocked stores with too many trendy items like skinny jeans, officials told Wall Street analysts.

Wal-Mart's results were below the 1.5 percent gain expected by analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial.

Wal-Mart also estimated that same-store sales should be unchanged in November from a year ago.

''As in September, apparel sales, particularly in women's apparel, were softer than expected,'' said Tom Schoewe, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Wal-Mart in a statement.

But he noted the company's aggressive advertising of its discounts, or what it calls rollbacks, should help ''reinforce Wal-Mart's price leadership position.''

Schoewe added that the company is already seeing a ''significant lift in unit volume'' from its move in mid-October to discount more than 100 holiday toys. ''In electronics, another dynamic category for the holiday season, we have several initiatives planned to drive holiday sales,'' he said.

Meanwhile, rival Target had a solid 3.9 percent gain in same-store sales, though the figure was slightly below the 4.2 percent estimate from Wall Street.

BJ's had a 0.7 percent decline in same-store sales, below the 0.9 percent gain estimated by Wall Street. The company said falling gasoline prices dampened sales at the retailer, which sells gasoline.