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High prices for food and gasoline, a sluggish economy and picky shoppers going to fewer stores cut into sales at big U.S. retailers in May.

Retailers that missed analysts' estimates included Victoria's Secret owner Limited Brands Inc. , Target Corp. , Gap Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. Inc.

Overall, sales at stores open at least a year rose 4.9 per cent in May at the retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters data, below the 5.4-per-cent increase that Wall Street expected.

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"Perhaps we will see some pent-up demand in June, but we are concerned that the consumer, particularly at the lower end, may simply have a fixed spending amount and may simply spend less as apparel prices rise," said Janney Capital Markets analyst Adrienne Tennant.

Also, new U.S. claims for unemployment benefits fell last week, but not enough to assuage fears that the labor market recovery has taken a step back.

Retailers that beat estimates were generally those with a large array of products or what consumers saw as good prices.

Costco Wholesale Corp. and BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. Thursday joined department store operator Macy's Inc in reporting higher-than-expected same-store sales.

"Consumers are consolidating trips to the destinations perceived to offer the most overall value, such as Macy's and Costco," Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi said in a research note.

"Our guests continue to shop cautiously in light of higher energy costs and inflationary pressures on their household budgets," said Target Chief Executive Officer Gregg Steinhafel.

For May, the discount chain posted 2.8-per-cent rise in same-store sales, a key gauge of a retailer's health.

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That was below the analysts' average estimate for a 3.5-per-cent gain and at the low end of the company's expectations. Mr. Steinhafel cited a slowdown in traffic in the back half of the month, which included the U.S. Memorial Day holiday that unofficially starts summer.

Overall, the 4.9-per-cent increase compares with gains of 8.9 per cent in April, when a late Easter holiday fueled sales, and 2.6 per cent in May 2010, when the economy was still fitful and many experts feared a double-dip recession.

"For the things I can hold off on for a bit, I won't buy," said Christa Hirneisen, who was shopping at a Gap store in midtown Manhattan on Wednesday.

That means that competition between retailers has heated up.

"There's not really a rising tide," said Walter Stackow, senior research analyst for Manning & Napier Advisors, which invests in the retail sector. "For every winner, there's going to be a loser."

Limited posted a same-store sales increase of 6 per cent, below the analysts' average forecast of 7 per cent, and its shares dropped 6 per cent.

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Gap Inc. reported a 4-per-cent drop, disappointing analysts who were expecting a 1-per-cent decline. Same-store sales fell 9 per cent at its international stores, while its North American stores posted declines of 4 per cent at Gap, 6 per cent at Banana Republic and 1 percent at Old Navy. The company's shares fell 1.6 per cent.

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