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5 things retail earnings tell us about the rest of the year

Halfway through retail earnings, the scorecard isn't giving investors much reason for optimism in 2014.

According to Retail Metrics, whose broad index includes auto retailers and entertainment companies, the industry's fourth-quarter earnings are down 5.3 percent so far. Smaller-than-expected losses at J.C. Penney and Sears brought some cheer to the sector, but even that was relative given the easy comparisons they faced.

Strength was also attributed to the auto, entertainment and luxury businesses, highlighting weakness in core retail segments—particularly teen apparel. And although 56 percent of retailers in Retail Metrics' index have exceeded earnings estimates, those estimates were so bearish that the beats should be taken in context.

A Home Depot in Boston after a January snowstorm.
Getty Images
A Home Depot in Boston after a January snowstorm.

As the industry turns the page on a difficult fourth quarter, investors look toward a new year in retail. Below are five takeaways from the sector's earnings so far.

1. The off-price model is for real. Given the massive price cuts this holiday, some analysts had expressed concern that off-price retailers would lose sales to department and specialty stores. But that wasn't the case at TJX. Comparable-store sales rose 3 percent during the fourth quarter, which topped both company expectations and Wall Street estimates.

"TJX's business model remains differentiated, market-share leading, and [it] has the best national brands along with less fashion risk," said Citi analyst Oliver Chen.

(Read more: Wal-Mart ups the ante on its big bet to go small)

TJX buys merchandise months later than traditional stores, so it has an advantage in that it typically stocks the right goods at the right time, according to Stifel Nicolaus analyst Richard Jaffe. That will enable TJX to drive strong sales and margins.

Still, It wasn't all positive for TJX. The retailer's merchandise margin fell for the first time since first- quarter 2011, which contributed a miss on its earnings-per-share forecast.

Off-price competitor Ross Stores is scheduled to report earnings after the bell Thursday.

2. Having the right merchandise makes all the difference. Macy's, the darling of the retail industry this holiday, outpaced much of the sector in the November to December period. Despite deceleration in January, its comparable-store sales were up 1.4 percent in the quarter, as strong brands such as Michael Kors and Tommy Hilfiger helped the department store stand out.

Macy's focus of targeting its fashions toward stores' local communities also helped differentiate the company, analysts said.

"These are distinct qualities that cannot be easily copied because of the financial resources and talent required," said Morgan Stanley analyst Kimberly Greenberger.

On the flip side, Abercrombie & Fitch, which saw same-store sales dip 8 percent in the quarter, has seen much of its weakness come from a failure to adapt to trends.

3. It's not just the weather. Although below-average temperatures and a wet winter impacted sales during the quarter, Macy's debunked the theory that weather was the only culprit. During its conference call, CFO Karen Hoguet said there was "some weaker business in the non-weather impacted areas."

(Read more: Cold weather could mean hot sales for these brands)

Wal-Mart's domestic same-store sales decline provided further evidence that low-income consumers continue to struggle, as rising gas prices and a reduction in food stamp benefits strained the wallets of its core customers.

"For fiscal 2015, we're focusing on growth and returning to positive comps," the retailer said in its earnings call.

4. Better days are not immediately ahead. Slow holiday sales trends will continue to affect the industry in 2014, partly because of inventory buildup. Macy's said in its earnings call that inventory levels are about 4 percent higher than last year; at Wal-Mart, they're about 2 percent higher. Abercrombie's inventory is up a dramatic 24 percent.

In a recent note, Wells Fargo analyst Paul Lejuez said that higher inventories could perpetuate the problem of markdowns, as shoppers tend to gravitate toward discounted goods.

(Read more: The new buzzword retailers need to know)

In addition, "the [weather] pattern causing the persistent cold will not suddenly go away and stay away in the weeks ahead," according to AccuWeather.com. This could continue to hit retailers' top lines, as consumers have little incentive to buy flip-flops and bathing suits—already on sales racks—in 20 degree weather.

Pent-up demand should boost sales when the weather turns warmer, said BMO Capital Markets analyst John Morris, but the trend is not sustainable, "particularly in light of an ongoing lack of fashion consensus."

5. Finally, a sign turnarounds are taking hold. Investors cheered J.C. Penney's fourth-quarter results, which included its first same-store sales gain in more than two years. The retailer's stock was up about 23 percent and on pace for its best day in at least 42 years. Lejuez at Wells Fargo upgraded the shares to market perform after the results, saying they were weak but offered good news.

Not all analysts are bullish on JCP, though. Despite erasing the changes made by former CEO Ron Johnson, and bringing back its bread-and-butter products and discounts, the sales gain was relatively small. And it was on top of very weak year-over-year comparisons.

"The fact remains: For J.C. Penney to survive, J.C. Penney must be now transitioning to double-digit percentage positive comps off year-earlier comparisons and renewed promotional activity in the store," said Belus Capital Advisors analyst Brian Sozzi.

Analysts applauded Abercrombie & Fitch's move last month to separate the CEO and chairman roles, and add three retail veterans to its board. In the recent quarter, the company saw strength in e-commerce relative to peers, with about 25 percent of its sales coming from direct-to-consumer. According to Goldman Sachs, e-commerce typically makes up about 15 percent of teen retailers' sales.

Abercrombie also said in its earnings call that it's considering selling third-party brands. That could be a positive step toward a compelling product offering, in the effort to bring back its core customer and restore margins.

Best Buy, which said it would be aggressive on pricing this past holiday, had a mixed picture but left investors feeling upbeat. Despite a U.S. same-store sales decline of 1.2 percent, the retailer handily beat profit expectations. Citigroup analyst Kate McShane attributed the beat to a lower-than-expected drop in gross margins.

Though it did not lose as much as expected in the quarter, struggling department store Sears had a 6.4 percent decline in domestic same-store sales.

—By CNBC's Krystina Gustafson. Follow her on Twitter @KrystinaGustafs.

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