By Phil Wahba
Major retailers ranging from Macy's Inc <M.N> and Saks Inc <SKS.N> to those catering to more frugal shoppers like Target Corp <TGT.N> and J.C. Penney Co Inc <JCP.N> all reported lower-than-expected sales at stores open at least a year.
"This uncertainty, the news changing every day, it causes a freeze," said Wharton School professor Barbara Kahn.
Overall, 23 major U.S.-based retailers that report monthly results were expected to post a composite same-store sales gain of 4.5 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.
Some like Penney and Gap Inc <GPS.N>, reported another month of comparable sales declines.
Even companies that have regularly beaten Wall Street forecasts had a disappointing October.
Macy's said sales suffered because of a warm start to the month, which prompted people to delay buying winter clothes.
Limited Brands <LTD.N>, the parent of Victoria's Secret, narrowly missed analysts' estimates with a 6 percent rise in sales at stores open at least a year and forecast a slower pace of gains for November.
Costco, a perennial winner as shoppers seek low prices, reported U.S. same-store sales rose 9 percent, which were below Wall Street forecasts of 9.8 percent.
Bright spots included Kohl's Corp <KSS.N> which reported a 3.9 percent gain, and Nordstrom Inc <JWN.N> and Zumiez Inc<ZUMZ.O>, which also beat forecasts.
"Now going into the holiday season, consumers are going to start to be more selective," said Kurt Salmon retail strategist Megan Donadio. "They want to make sure they are getting value."
Consumer confidence did brighten a bit but was still low compared with historic levels.
October is the third-smallest month for sales but with holiday shopping starting earlier than ever, the numbers are a foretaste of that all-important season.
Still, sales rose by and large, and some analysts faulted Wall Street for underestimating how much caution is still out there.
Teen retailers were a mixed bag. Wet Seal's <WTSLA.O> comparable sales fell 9.7 percent, well below expectations, and the company lowered its quarterly profit outlook.
But American Eagle Outfitters <AEO.N> said on Wednesday that its same-store sales were up 5 percent for the third quarter ended on October 29. It no longer reports on a monthly basis.
(Reporting by Phil Wahba in New York; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)