Target upbeat on 4Q; key Dec. sales measure flat

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Target says its fourth-quarter earnings will meet or possibly beat the low end of its prior forecast, even as a key December sales figure fell a bit short of analysts' expectations.

The discount retailer said Thursday that sales at stores open at least a year were basically flat for the five weeks ended Dec. 29. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected an increase of 0.8 percent.

That metric is a key indicator of a retailer's health because it excludes results from stores recently opened or closed.

December includes the holiday shopping season, which is critical to retailers, because it can bring in up to 40 percent of their annual revenue.

Chairman, President and CEO Gregg Steinhafel said in a statement that Target's December sales performance was slightly below its expectations, with strong results later in the month unable to offset earlier weakness.

The strongest category during the month was food, with health and beauty and clothing also doing well.

For the quarter to date, sales at stores open at least a year fell 0.4 percent. The figure is up 2.7 percent for the year to date.

Total sales for December rose slightly to $10.21 billion. Sales were also up slightly for the quarter to date to $16.4 billion. Year-to-date sales increased 2.7 percent to $65.99 billion.

Steinhafel said that the company's focus on inventory management and pricing is part of the reason why it expects fourth-quarter earnings to meet or possibly top the low end of its previous outlook.

Target Corp.'s forecast for the fourth quarter is for adjusted earnings between $1.64 and $1.74 per share.

Analysts polled by FactSet expect $1.49 per share for the Minneapolis company.

Target anticipates a low single-digit increase in January revenue at stores open at least a year.

The chain has 1,782 stores in the U.S. It plans to open its first stores in Canada this year.

Target shares rose $1.70, or 2.9 percent, to $60.52 in premarket trading.