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July Sales Lukewarm at Discounters, Steamy At Clubs

NEW YORK - Grocers' cross-channel competitors offered a mixed bag of July sales reports, with warehouse clubs riding fuel price hikes to the stronger results, while other discounters delivered softer performances in the month.

Overall, chains reporting July sales yesterday came up against tough comparisons with the year-ago period, when, among other things, tax rebates had loosened many consumers' spending habits. This time around fuel costs have teamed up with higher interest rates and even unseasonable weather to tamp down on consumers' proclivity to spend.

Still, wholesale clubs found good news on their ledgers. BJ's Wholesale Club reported a 6.4 percent rise in same-store sales in July, helped by strong increases in categories such as baby food, dairy, and household chemicals. In a statement, the chain said total sales rose 10.2 percent to $532.6 million from $483.2 million a year ago. Supermarket categories such as baby food, dairy, health & beauty aids, household chemicals, meat, paper products, and pet foods were among the strongest performers for the club operator.

BJ's president and c.e.o., Mike Wedge, said, "On a comparable club basis, sales of food increased by approximately 10 percent and general merchandise decreased by approximately 2 percent."

Comps at Costco Wholesale Corp. rose 9 percent, beating Wall Street's average estimate. The club chain said total sales rose 12 percent to $3.72 billion for the four weeks ended Aug. 1.

At Family Dollar Stores, however, July same-store sales rose only 1.4 percent, below the 2.1 percent increase projected by analysts. Family Dollar said it anticipates fourth-quarter earnings as well to be flat compared with the year-ago quarter. Same-store sales included an increase of about 2.9 percent in sales of hardlines, but were hurt by a drop of about 4 percent in softlines sales, the company said.

Sam's outperformed its parent Wal-Mart Stores regarding comps in July, with same-store sales growth of 7.7 percent, compared to Wal-Mart's 3.2 percent gain in the month. Wal-mart's overall comps where in line with its own forecasts, however, and a notch above analysts' expectations. Total July sales for Sam's were up 8.8 percent to $2.71 billion from $2.49 billion a year earlier.

Wal-Mart said in mid-July that higher prices for paper goods such as napkins and facial tissue helped increase revenue, and that some shoppers had started buying back-to-school items such as pens and notebooks.

-- Stephen Dowdell
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