NEW YORK - Retailers - with Wal-Mart the notable exception - limped through a miserable November that even a surge of shopping after Thanksgiving couldn't save, marking the weakest month since at least 1969 and deepening fears that the critical holiday period could be the most dismal in decades.

As merchants announced their November sales figures today, the deep malaise cut across all sectors as shoppers worried about layoffs and shrinking retirement funds focus on necessities.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., though, posted sales gains that surpassed Wall Street estimates and has seen more customers and higher average transactions as it benefits from what could be a deep and prolonged recession.

However, Costco Wholesale Corp., usually a strong performer, reported a bigger-than expected sales decline.

And most mall-based chains and department stores such as teen stalwart Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Kohl's Corp. and Macy's Inc. fared much worse, reporting percentage declines of over 10 percent.

"It's an awful beginning to the holiday season," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at International Council of Shopping Centers. "This is going to be a difficult holiday season for most retailers. There are going to be more bankruptcies."

He predicted that the retrenchment in spending will linger for at least another six months.

According to the Goldman Sachs-International Council of Shopping Centers index of 37 stores, sales dropped 2.7 percent for November, making it the worst month since at least 1969 when the index began.

November's results were even more miserable than the 1 percent drop that Niemira anticipated. He noted that excluding Wal-Mart, the index declined a dramatic 7.7 percent, indicating a widening gap between the world's largest retailer and the rest of the merchants.

The tally is based on same-store sales, or sales at stores opened at least a year, which are considered a key indicator of a retailer's health.

Mothers Work

Mothers Work Inc., which operates A Pea in the Pod and other maternity-apparel stores, said today that November same-store sales rose 0.6 percent.

The Philadelphia-based retailer said same-store sales were helped by a calendar shift of more Fridays during the month compared with last year.

Total November sales fell 5.3 percent to $44 million from $46.5 million last year. The sales decline is mainly due to the company's closure of its remaining leased departments within Sears stores in June.

Company shares were priced at $8.47, up 16 cents (1.93 percent) in late-morning Nasdaq trading.

Rite Aid

Drugstore operator Rite Aid Corp. reported weaker-than-expected sales in the fiscal third quarter, and also fell short on a key measurement of retailer health as it posted disappointing same-store sales in November.

Rite Aid, based in Camp Hill, Pa., said traditional holiday sales were not as strong as they were last year because of a later Thanksgiving, while sales of recently introduced generic drugs hurt its pharmacy sales.

The company's total sales decreased 0.9 percent in the fiscal third quarter, to $6.44 billion from $6.5 billion. Analysts had expected $6.49 billion, according to Thomson Reuters. The period ended Nov. 29.

In November, Rite Aid said its same-store sales were flat compared with the same period in 2007. Same-store pharmacy sales edged up 0.2 percent, as Brooks Eckerd pharmacies continued to struggle, and front-end, or non-pharmacy, sales fell 0.4 percent.

Analysts predicted same-store sales would grow 2.5 percent for the month, with pharmacy sales rising 2 percent and front-end stores up 3.6 percent.

Same-store sales at Brooks Eckerd stores declined 2.1 percent, with pharmacy sales down 3 percent and front-end sales rising 0.8 percent. Rite Aid bought the Brooks Eckerd stores in June 2007. While same-store sales at those locations have been in decline, they were steadying in recent months: Total Brooks Eckerd same-store sales grew in October, with pharmacy sales down only slightly and front-end sales showing strong improvement.

Those trends reversed in November, which for retailers was the last five weeks of the quarter.

Excluding Brooks Eckerd stores, November same-store sales increased 1 percent, as pharmacy sales grew 2.1 percent and front-end sales dipped 0.8 percent.

Total sales fell 2 percent in November, to $2.48 billion from $2.53 billion a year ago.

In the third quarter, Rite Aid's same-store sales improved 1.4 percent, with pharmacy sales up 1 percent and front-end sales 2.3 percent better. That included a 1-percent decrease at Brooks Eckerd stores, where pharmacy sales slid 2.6 percent and front-end sales rose 3.7 percent.

Non-Brooks Eckerd same-store sales increased 2.6 percent, as pharmacy sales increased 3 percent and front-end sales grew 1.9 percent.

Shares of the company fell 5 cents, or 10.64 percent, to 42 cents in early afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Bon-Ton

The York, Pa.-based chain said that comparable-store sales for the four weeks ended Nov. 29 were down 16.0 percent compared with the prior-year period.

Total sales for the four weeks decreased 15.5 percent to $332.3 million, compared with $393.1 million for the prior year period.

"Due to the calendar shift, comparable stores sales were down for the month as expected, with an additional week of holiday sales coming in December," said Tony Buccina, vice chairman and president of merchandising. "Given the November sales results, we are on track to achieve the previously provided fourth-quarter comparable store sales guidance."

He cited accessories, outerwear, shoes, children's items and cosmetics as the top performers, with furniture, juniors, petite sportswear and men's sportswear being the weakest.

"Our continued discipline in inventory control led to an inventory reduction of 6.4% on a comparable store basis," Buccina continued.

The Bon-Ton Stores, Inc. operates 281 stores, including twelve furniture galleries, in 23 states in the Northeast, Midwest and upper Great Plains under the Bon-Ton, Bergner's, Boston Store, Carson Pirie Scott, Elder-Beerman, Herberger's and Younkers nameplates and, under the Parisian nameplate, stores in the Detroit, Michigan area.

Shares were priced at $1.15, down 9 cents (7.26 percent) early this afternoon in Nasdaq trading.

Burlington Coat Factory

Privately held Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp. said that, for the second quarter ended Nov. 29, comparative store sales decreased 2.1 percent for the quarter.

The Burlington-based company also said that net sales from continuing operations for the quarter were $1 billion, compared with $946.6 million for the comparative period ended Dec. 1, 2007, a 5.9 percent increase.

Net sales from continuing operations for the six months ended Nov. 29 were $1.709 billion, compared with $1.625 billion for the comparative period ended December 1, 2007, a 5.2 percent increase. These results reflect a 1.1 percent comparative store sales decrease for the period.

During the six months ended Nov. 29, 2008, the company said, it opened 33 Burlington Coat Factory stores. Four stores were closed during the period. During the remainder of the current fiscal year, the company expects to open seven additional stores.

Two stores remain closed as a result of Hurricane Ike and are expected to reopen during the second half of fiscal 2009.

As of the end of the quarter, the company operated 427 stores in 44 states and Puerto Rico, principally under the name Burlington Coat Factory.