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Retailers Slash Prices, But at What Cost?

In a bid to pull hesitant shoppers into their stores, retailers are slashing prices on everything from jeans to dinnerware. But those fat discounts will likely come at a big cost for the companies.

At teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters Inc., shoppers who buy jeans get a second pair at half off. Jewelry chain Zale Corp. is offering an extra 20 percent off on a slew of items like gold earrings that were already slashed up to 70 percent. And Pottery Barn has discounts of up to 75 percent.

"There's a fine line between aggressive promotions and panic, and we are seeing a little bit of both right now," said Dan Hess, founder and CEO of research firm Merchant Forecast.

While retailers entered the fall season with inventories well below last year, analysts say many were still a little too hopeful: August sales are turning out to be even weaker than expected, which analysts fear could lead to more piles of marked-down merchandise on the floor. That could in turn hurt third-quarter profits as the industry prepares for the critical holiday season. Major retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., J.C. Penney Co. and Gap Inc., which also operates Banana Republic and Old Navy stores, are slated to announce final August sales results on Thursday.

Hess estimated that discounts are 10 percent deeper at mall-based apparel stores than a year ago, despite a drop of anywhere from 10 percent to 15 percent in inventories.

"Even though retailers are entering the season conservatively, they still have been too optimistic about the consumer," he added.

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