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 percent in May at the retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters data, below the 5.4 percent increase that Wall Street expected.

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 on 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 percent rise in same-store sales, a key gauge of a retailer's health.

That was below the analysts' average estimate for a 3.5 percent gain and at the low end of the company's expectations. 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 percent increase compares with gains of 8.9 percent in April, when a late Easter holiday fueled sales, and 2.6 percent 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 percent, below the analysts' average forecast of 7 percent, and its shares dropped 6 percent.

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

(Additional reporting by Phil Wahba, Helen Chernikoff and Dhanya Skariachan in New York; editing by Andre Grenon, Brad Dorfman and Lisa Von Ahn)