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Apple shares surge over holidays, while Costco craters

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Apple (AAPL) and Amazon.com (AMZN) were the market winners among 12 big retail stocks during the holiday shopping season. But the group overall fell short of the average gain posted during the previous decade and a surprise loser emerged signaling traders were concerned weak consumer spending was likely to mean muted sales.

On that latter point, they may well be right, indicating the weeks ahead could bring revenue and profit warnings from the retail chains as they close the books on their busiest time of the year. Bloomberg, citing ShopperTrak data, reported this week that traffic to U.S. stores in the final full week before Christmas slumped 21%, while retail sales fell 3.1%. Though online purchasing growth accounts for some of the dent, the majority of transactions are still conducted inside physical stores. All told, sales for the retailers probably rose a tame 2% from the start of November through Dec. 22, ShopperTrak said, according to the report.

In terms of the stock market, the dozen in our survey rose an average of 1.1% from the close of trading on the Monday before Thanksgiving through the end of the session Dec. 24. That's around half of the 2% advance the group has averaged each year going back to 2003. Only four in our review declined, though seven of the 12 performed below their norm. The group features the 10 largest retailers measured by revenue in the S&P 500, excluding drug stores and supermarkets. To those, GameStop (GME) and Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF) are added in. The S&P itself was up 1.7% during the holiday period. Here are the results:

The top stocks were Apple, Amazon and GameStop tech gadgets, an online retail giant and video games, respectively. Apple's 8.4% climb to $567.67 was much better than its usual 2.8% gain, wheras GameStop more than doubled its average rise, adding 4.8% to $50.97. Amazon is almost always a strong performer, increasing 5.7% a year, and this time around it slightly exceeded that, with a 6% move ahead to $399.20.

For reference, the average for each of our stocks from 2003-2012 is below:

Also notable was Best Buy (BBY), a company we named our comeback stock of the year, thanks to its surge of some 250% in 2013. We expressed concerns about its share price ahead of the holidays, considering it often struggles in the final weeks of the year. But the upward momentum continued, and the electronics seller tacked on 1.6% to $40.22. That marked only its third positive holiday performance in 11 years and its first since 2008. In a normal year, it loses 4.1%.

Meanwhile, another sort of turnaround hit Abercrombie. Historically the best stock in the set, with an average move higher of 5.8%, the teen-clothing merchant continued its year-long pullback, falling 1.3% to $33.43.

Target (TGT), which said Dec. 19 that hackers had infiltrated its card-payment system and potentially compromised millions of customer accounts, dropped 3.2% to $61.71 over the holidays, making it the second-worst performer to Costco (COST). Generally one of the better year-end stocks, Costco this time slid 5.2% to $118.69, partly as an earnings disappointment clipped shares. For Target, the cyber attack itself hasn't hurt the stock terribly. From the day before the disclosure through Christmas Eve, it gave back 2.9%, but it's rebounded in the last two days to trim the loss to 1.4%; it's trading slightly down on Friday, at $62.22. Wal-Mart (WMT), a perpetual decliner, fell 2.4% to $78.01.

The next couple of weeks will be even more telling as the chain stores lay out the good and the bad. If the market and ShopperTrak are correctly assessing the situation, the most generous way to describe this holiday season probably is nothing better than so-so. And, pessimistically, even that may prove to be a charitable prediction.