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Few details from JC Penney on holiday sales spook market

Customers ride the escalator at a J.C. Penney store in New York August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Phil Wahba

(Reuters) - Sometimes, no news is bad news.

J.C. Penney Co Inc (JCP) shares slid 8 percent after the department store chain said on Wednesday it was "pleased" with its holiday sales performance, but skimped on specifics.

Other retail stocks were down slightly, but the lack of detail in the Penney release fueled speculation that its turnaround is stalling.

It was the second most actively traded New York Stock Exchange-listed share.

The spare two-paragraph news release on Wednesday, which did not include a figure for its comparable sales growth for December, stood in stark contrast with earlier, detailed statements about its performance in October and November, when sales ended a nearly two-year streak of monthly declines.

In those, Penney gave specific figures and discussed its online business, gross margin and shopper traffic trends. Those positive results gave Penney shares a lift after they hit 32-year lows in October.

"If JCP had good things to say about business trends, the company would have shared more," Sterne Agee analyst Charles Grom wrote in a note. "The slope of the improvement at JCPenney needs to be much greater than it is currently tracking."

A Penney spokeswoman declined to comment beyond the news release.

The retailer, which is expected to report fourth-quarter results in February, is fighting to win back shoppers after a failed experiment to go up-market in 2012 and early 2013.

Penney faced intense competition from rivals during the holiday season. Many analysts said the season saw the most aggressive discounts and sales since the recession.

Gimme Credit senior high yield analyst Evan Mann called the update "skimpy" and asked "Where's the beef?" He said the paucity of details was disappointing given how much concern there is about Penney's financial situation.

Penney reaffirmed its forecast for a rise in comparable-store sales in the fourth quarter and expects to have total liquidity of more than $2 billion at the end of the current fiscal year.

The company previously reported a 10.1 percent gain in November comparable-store sales. But analysts said Penney could still log a gain for the full quarter, even if sales fell in December.

If sales fell last month, UBS analyst Michael Binetti said "it would be a major blow" to analysts' belief that Penney's business is stabilizing.

Penney has been cutting prices aggressively to bring shoppers back, and has been giving prominence to in-house brands such as St. John's Bay. It has offered deep discounts on lines such as home goods by Michael Graves that failed to catch on with shoppers in its 2012 attempt to offer trendier wares.

Penney shares were down 8.1 percent at $7.53 in afternoon trading. The stock has slumped 67 percent since it hit a 52-week high of $23.10 last February.

(Additional reporting by Sagarika Jaisinghani in Bangalore; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Andre Grenon)