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Mid-tier retailers take Sept. lumps

NEW YORK — With hurricanes pounding Southeastern states and gas prices climbing, same-store sales remained sluggish for most key American retailers during September.

Stores at opposite ends of the retail spectrum did best — value retailers and luxury nameplates — while most others in the vast middle ground got clobbered.

Putting a number on it, the Johnson Redbook Same-Store Flash Report, which tracks a sample of 60 broadlines retailers across a wide range of formats, reported that same-store sales edged up 1.8 percent, ahead of a weaker 0.5 percent increase in August, but still behind a strong 2.8 percent increase recorded in July. It marked a fourth straight month of soft sales at retail, and even the important back-to-school promotion could provide only a modest bounce as consumers continued to fret about the jobs outlook and had less money to spend after filling up the tank.

The strongest gains were reported at warehouse clubs and high-value retailers, with BJ's Warehouse Club up 8.3 percent; Costco up 8 percent; Target climbing 5.6 percent. Florida-based Stein Mart rose 5.2 percent, even though storms cost the retailer about $5 million in sales, said CEO Michael Fisher.

Luxury retailers like Nordstrom's and Neiman-Marcus turned in a strong performance. But Saks Inc. reported a 4 percent decline in comps, as a strong 5.8 percent gain in its tony Saks Fifth Avenue stores was more than offset by a 10.9 percent slide in its department store group.

But retailers in the big middle, among them some of the nation's best-known names, performed poorly. Even giant Wal-Mart managed only a 2.4 percent increase, running far behind rival Target, where comps rose more than twice as fast, 5.6 percent. Sales in ShopKo stores were off 1.6 percent, while sales at the chain's small-store Pamida division were flat.

Notably hard hit were full-price department stores, and even mid-price powerhouse Kohl's, where same-store sales remained weak, slipping 1.3 percent. Sales tumbled 3.2 percent at Sears, 2.8 percent at Dillard's; and 1.5 percent at May. Sales at Federated were virtually flat, edging up 0.1 percent.

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