Clearly the slowing economy is finally starting to drag consumer spending down with it, just in time for the start of the critical fourth quarter for retail merchants nationwide.

According to the just-released September comparable-store sales results for the five weeks ending Oct. 5, even discounters are not performing up to their previous 2002 levels.

Discount leader Wal-Mart Stores saw comp-store sales increase 3.6%, which was within the company’s recent lower guidance of a 4-6% range, but disappointing versus a 6.7% increase for September 2001.

No. 2 discounter Target Corp. saw its total net sales increase 7%, but comp-store sales actually dropped by 0.8%.

Results in the deep-discount arena were mixed but generally up, reflecting strong consumer interest in bargain hunting. Dollar General’s comp-store sales were up a respectable 5%, while Value City comps were down 7.5%. Tuesday Morning and Family Dollar saw comp-sales gains of 7% and 4.1%, respectively.

Department stores continue to struggle. Closely watched Sears saw its comp sales drop by 5.9%, but chairman and CEO Alan J. Lacy put a positive spin on the numbers. "We have made significant changes to our stores, our merchandise offerings and our customer service model over the past year. As we enter the holiday shopping season, our customers will benefit from these changes through an improved shopping experience and a more exciting merchandise offering."

Even darling Kohl’s Corp. saw a 3.2% comp-sales decline, the first such negative result this year and lackluster compared to double-digit gains earlier this summer.

JCPenney, in the midst of a turnaround effort, recorded a 3.1% decline in comp-sales for the month. Total department store sales for the month fell 3.7%.

Federated Department Stores scored a minor victory — it's comp-sales were flat compared to a year ago, so no ground was lost.

Several fashion merchants actually did ok in September. Chico’s, which has been on a real tear of late, saw comps increase a whopping 21.7%. Total sales shot up 50.5%. AnnTaylor comps increased 2.3%. And Ross Stores saw a 7% comp-sales gain.