U.S. consumer caution continued in July, as retail chains, for the most part, posted large declines in same-store sales. However, some retailers forecast improving results in the quarters ahead. Same store sales (sss) are a key sector barometer, as they exclude results from new stores, which generally have higher sales due to the "newness" of the brand in a location.

JC Penney (JCP) said July sss plummeted 12.3 percent. However, JCP decreased its earnings per share (eps) loss estimate for Q2 to a loss of 1 cent per share, compared to the First Call Q2 eps estimate of a loss of 8 cents per share.

Upscale retailer Nordstrom (JWN) said July sss fell 6.9 percent, with total sales for July (including August 1) declining 4.1 percent to $806 million.

Bargain retailer Kohl's (KSS) bucked the July retail trend by announcing that July sss rose 0.4 percent, with total sales rising 5.2 percent to $1.1 billion. KSS also raised its Q2 eps guidance to 73-74 cents per share, compared to the First Call Q2 eps estimate of 67 cents.

Upscale chain Saks (SKS) said July sss plunged 16.3 percent, with overall July sales falling 14.9 percent to $160 million.

Warehouse consumer chain Costco (COST) said July sss slid 7 percent, largely on weakness in the U.S., where sales fell 8 percent; internationally, they dropped 5 percent. Total July sales fell 5 percent to $5.41 billion.

Difficult days for apparel continue

Concerning the apparel sector, The Gap (GPS) announced that July same-store sales plunged 8 percent, with total sales falling 7 percent to $924 million. GPS also now sees Q2 eps of 30-32 cents versus the 28 cent First Call Q2 eps estimate.

Urban Outfitters (URBN) said Q2 sss plunged 6 percent, while total Q2 sales increased 1 percent to $459 million. The company added that it sees challenging market conditions persisting in the second half of 2009.

Meanwhile, Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) said July sss plunged 28 percent, with total July sales sliding 22 percent to $236 million.

Also, American Eagle Outfitters (AEO) said July sss slid 11 percent, with total Q2 sales declining 8 percent to $215 million. AEO also said it expects Q2 eps of 16 cents versus the First Call Q2 eps estimate of 14 cents per share.

Retail Sector Analysis: Some upside surprises, but in general, there's little in the July same store sales reports that suggests a change in the belt-tightening trend by the nation's citizens. The nation is correcting from a five-year-period of unsustainable over-consumption (2003-2007), fed in large part by home equity loans and refinancings. That fact, combined with stagnant real incomes in most job categories, and an uncertain economic outlook, has compelled Americans to pull-back the reins on shopping. If that trend continues, it's hard to see consumption occupying 60 to 65 percent of U.S. GDP as it has historically -- which points to a smaller retail sector.

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