The patchy consumer spending patterns that dragged down many retail heavyweights in recent weeks also hit Target Corp.

After reporting lower-than-expected sales for the first quarter, the Minneapolis-based retailer said Wednesday it expected flat-to-lower sales in the coming months given the choppy landscape. The news spooked investors, triggering one of the biggest sell-offs of Target's stock in nearly eight years.

Chief Executive Brian Cornell provided a litany of reasons for the downbeat forecast, including a cold and wet spring that affected sales in East Coast markets such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Meanwhile, sales on the other coast, in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, boomed in the February-to-April period.

"We're seeing very significant geographic volatility unlike anything I've seen in many, many years," Cornell told analysts on a conference call. "I expect the Northeast to recover. I think spring will arrive there."

Rising gas prices, changes in consumer spending decisions and inventory buildups at some competitors, particularly for apparel, also weighed on executives' decision to lower the near-term sales forecast. A threatened boycott by people angry about a transgender bathroom policy that the company announced last month wasn't a factor and hasn't affected sales, Cornell said. That threat continues to generate attention on social media, but it sparked no concern or questions from analysts Wednesday.

"It's been a tough retail environment, but Target is outperforming peers and taking share," Sean Naughton, an analyst with Piper Jaffray, wrote in a report.

Target's shares fell 7.6 percent to $68 on Wednesday, the company's biggest one-day stock drop since the onset of the global financial crisis in September 2008. Target shares are now down 19 percent from their high close of $83.98 on April 19.

The S&P retail industry index is down 11 percent in that period.

Macy's, Kohl's and Nordstrom experienced some of their worst quarters since the recession in the first few months of this year, citing apparel sales that were soft.

Home Depot and Lowe's, which have been riding a strong wave in the housing recovery, reported strong results, however. And TJX Companies, the parent of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, also had a blockbuster start to the year. Wal-Mart, the nation's biggest retailer, will report on Thursday.

"Target is kind of in the middle," said Jason Long, a retail consultant with Shift Marketing Group. "I don't think Amazon is going to eat their lunch, but they're going to have some challenges."

While Target's results are not eye-popping, the company seems to be moving in the right direction, he added. "The numbers aren't something where you step back and say, 'Wow.' But I'm encouraged overall."

Target executives said they noticed sales starting to slow after Easter in late March. In addition to the weather, they pointed to the disruption of Target's grocery department, with the retailer resetting its dry grocery aisles in all of its stores in April. The changes included adding 1,000 new items that include a number of gluten-free, natural and organic products.

"It was an investment we had to make in both labor and in disruption to make sure we continue to move forward in the reinvention of food," Cornell said.

For the three months ended April 30, Target's same-store sales, a closely watched metric, rose 1.2 percent, which was lower than expected. Online sales grew 23 percent.

The company earned $632 million, down slightly from $635 million in the same quarter a year ago. Adjusted for one-time expenses, Target earned $1.29 per share, ahead of analysts' forecasts of $1.20 a share. Revenue fell 5.4 percent to $16.2 billion, largely because of Target's sale of its pharmacies last year to CVS Health.

Sales in many of the key categories that Target has been investing in continued to outpace the rest of the company's results. Apparel sales, for example, were up 2 to 3 percent. Home products rose about 4 percent, driven in part by a strong response to the introduction of Target's Pillowfort brand. Electronics sales were soft amid lower sales of tablets and smartphones.

Target will soon have another executive join its team to further help bolster its merchandising efforts. Mark Tritton, a Nordstrom executive, will start next month as Target's chief merchant and will play a key role in deciding which items to put on store shelves. That position had been vacant for nearly a year.

Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113