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Retailers Showed Gains in February

Source: NY Times

Posted on 04 Mar 2010

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Sales at the nation's retailers were markedly better in February than in the month a year ago as the retailing sector stabilized and categories hurt most by the downturn showed signs of life.

But the results reported by retailers on Thursday looked good largely because they were being compared to last year’s deep declines. Still, sales might have been more robust were it not for winter storms that hit the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states.

Over all, the retailing industry reported a 4 percent increase last month in year-over-year sales at stores open at least a year, according to Thomson Reuters. That marked the sector’s sixth consecutive monthly sales increase. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters had expected stores to do well in contrast to last year’s 4.7 percent decline. Even so, the results exceeded their expectations by more than 1 percent.

Yet while most major chains posted sales increases, the weak job market held back consumer spending. And the weather last month did not help. Retailers have a tendency to blame snow, even rain, for lackluster sales, but Michael McNamara, vice president for research and analysis at SpendingPulse, an information service of MasterCard Advisors, said this time the retailers’ lament was justified.

“This month you can say, ‘I feel you,’ ” Mr. McNamara said, noting that sales in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic account for about 25 percent of all retailing in the United States. Macy’s, for instance, reported a 3.7 percent increase at stores open at least a year but said that the results would have been about 5 percent if not for the storms.

Whatever sales that retailers did manage in February were still far from the highs of a few years ago. For instance, sales of luxury goods not including jewelry peaked in 2007 and have yet to climb back to that level.

“You’re seeing some of the most positive growth rates out of the high-end but you don’t want to misread that,” Mr. McNamara said. “You’re just growing off of an absolutely tiny sales base last year. Some of the areas that really got hurt the hardest last year are now coming back a bit.”

In February, sales of luxury goods not including jewelry increased 15.2 percent year-over-year, according to SpendingPulse. That continues a positive trend for the sector: sales were up 8.1 percent in January and 5.5 percent in December.

February sales at Saks stores open at least a year, a measure of retail health known as same-store sales, increased 2 percent, Saks said on Thursday. Same-store sales in the specialty retail segment of Neiman Marcus, which includes Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman stores, increased 5.1 percent. At Nordstrom, which offers a wider range of prices than Saks and Neiman Marcus, sales rose 10.3 percent.

Consumers are still being cautious though. And as expected, stores that sell brand names at a discount fared best. Same-store sales rose 11 percent at Ross Stores and 10 percent at TJX Companies, which owns chains like TJ Maxx, Marshalls and Home Goods.

Other clothing purveyors also showed improvement. Sales increased year-over-year at nearly every major department store, a long-struggling sector, including Macy’s and Kohl’s (both up 3.7 percent), Dillard’s (up 2 percent), J.C. Penney (up 1.2 percent), and Bon-Ton (up 0.5 percent). Stein-Mart was an exception, posting a 9.3 percent decline.

Chains that cater to teenagers also did well. Same-store sales increased by double digits at Zumiez (up 11.2 percent) and at Limited, which owns chains including Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works (up 10 percent).

There were also increases at Aeropostale (up 7 percent), American Eagle Outfitters (up 6 percent), Buckle (up 5.1 percent), Wet Seal (up 4.7 percent), and Gap (up 3 percent). Abercrombie, the worst-performing chain for much of the downturn, reported a 5 percent same-store sales increase. Hot Topic was an exception, with sales sinking 7 percent.

Yet even as some consumers bought discretionary items like shirts and sneakers, they continued to be frugal-minded, driving sales at stores that sell food and other necessities at low prices.

Same-store sales were strong at discount chains like Costco (up 9 percent), BJ’s Wholesale Club (up 7.5 percent), and Target (up 2.4 percent). Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, does not report monthly sales. Costco said in a statement that customer traffic increased by about 3 percent and that the average transaction amount rose 1 percent.

E-commerce sales of all sorts continued to be robust. Analysts said the category might have been helped by winter storms that prompted consumers to shop online instead of in stores. In February sales for the sector increased 16.7 percent year-over-year, according to SpendingPulse.

In general, analysts do not consider February same-store sales to be a strong indicator of the industry’s health. Rather, they are looking to March and April to see whether consumers are willing to spend on spring clothes as well as food and decorations for Easter, which is a week earlier this year.

Ken Perkins, president of the research firm Retail Metrics, said in a research note on Thursday that the February results “are very encouraging as we head into March which will benefit from the Easter shift this year.”

But industry professionals agree that until the job market improves, consumers will guard their wallets.