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Price war dampens October comps  

New York – For the second month running, the top five gainers in comparative store sales for October were: the three main warehouse clubs – Costco, Sam’s and BJ’s -- the off-price titan TJX, and the upscale discounter Target.

It has been that kind of year.

For the 39 weeks year-to-date, only two of the 17 publicly-held chains tracked monthly by HTT had positive comps above 2%: Target, with a 4.3% comp rise, and BJ’s at 3.1% through the third quarter.

Costco’s year-to-date 7.0% gain measures just the first nine weeks of its fiscal year, which started with September.

And it may be getting tougher still as price cuts -- of course led by the crushing weight of the $345 billion dreadnought Wal-Mart -- are rampant. Retailers reporting October comps were unanimous in making statements about the promotional climate, and also boasted where they could that inventories were being kept tightly in check for the fourth quarter.

Other than squawking about the overly warm weather that has hampered apparel sales, merchants were un-customarily quiet, perhaps clamming up as they prepared for this week’s onset of third-quarter reporting and analyst Q&A sessions.

The results for home textiles as a part of the whole were lackluster. Few retailers mentioned the category at all, which may signal a bottoming out, as it differed from recent months when home was frequently singled out as a negatively-performing department.

Reading between the lines of Target chairman and ceo Bob Ulrich’s terse statement, things may have been stagnant in home there. Ulrich said, in part, “For the second straight month, we experienced soft sales in our higher margin categories,” which presumably include home textiles.

Wal-Mart, where comps were flat, noted, “Seasonal categories related to cold weather including those in apparel, home and hardlines were soft.”

There was a similarly laconic note from usually talkative Kohl’s, where chairman and ceo Larry Montgomery said, “Sales in weather-sensitive businesses such as outerwear, fleece and sweaters experienced significant declines on a comparable store basis, contributing to our sales shortfall.”

Home may have performed a bit better at JCPenney, where “the best performing merchandise categories were family shoes and selected home categories,” but that was not enough to pull overall comps above negative 1.8% for the month.

Likewise, The Bon-Ton Stores cited “Home and furniture, better missy, petite and large size sportswear and cosmetics” as top-performing categories.

In a mildly brighter month-to-month picture, the Johnson Redbook Same-Store Sales Index, tracking 49 chains, was up 1.6% for October, following a 1.1% rise in September and a 3.0% climb in August. However, a bit more than half of the retailers were in the comp-negative zone for the month.

And the evidence was strong that prices are key this season: department stores as a group were down 1.5% while discounters managed a collective 2.4% gain, according to Redbook.

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