U.S. retailers experienced sluggish sales in February, hurt by a weakening economy, high gasoline prices and discounts, according to a study released Wednesday by SpendingPulse.
The figures, from the retail data service of MasterCard Advisors, offer an early indication of the strength of February same-store sales, which most chains, including Wal-Mart Stores
, J.C. Penney and Gap , will report Thursday morning.
SpendingPulse, which tracks sales in the MasterCard payments network and couples it with estimates for all other payment forms, said sales at U.S. specialty apparel chains rose 1.9 percent in February, down from a 5.4 percent rise in January and a 2.5 percent gain in February 2007.
"February overall was a very flat month in terms of year-over-year growth across a whole variety of sectors," said Michael McNamara, SpendingPulse's vice president of research and analysis. "Nothing really outperformed," he added, citing retail categories such as electronics, appliances, shoes, home decor and luxury goods.
Sales of women's clothes fell 0.2 percent in February, SpendingPulse said, continuing a trend of year-over-year declines in the segment. But it was better than the 2.2 percent decline in January, when many stores discounted items to clear out unsold holiday merchandise.
Chico's FAS , which sells traditional styles to mature women, said Wednesday that sales at its stores open at least a year fell 14.9 percent in February and forecast lower same-store sales for the first half of this year.
Chico's and rivals like Talbots and AnnTaylor Stores have been hit especially hard by a combination of uninspiring fashions, strengthening department stores and the weak economy. Many women have begun spending less on themselves due to higher food and fuel prices, the credit crunch, and lower home values.
February is typically a month of few discounts, since retailers are usually done with holiday sales events and move on to spring merchandise. But this time, McNamara said, February's average prices were 2.3 percent lower than a year ago, implying that some discounting was taking place.
By contrast, sales of men's clothes rose 3.1 percent in February. That was down from a 7.3 percent increase in January but higher than the February 2007 gain of 1.4 percent. Men's prices were also up slightly, which McNamara said showed that stores carrying men's clothes did not have to lower prices to drum up sales.
Chains that cater to teenagers, such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Urban Outfitters , have weathered the spending slowdown better since their customers worry more about trends than finances.
Sales of shoes rose a meager 0.5 percent in February, McNamara said, down from a 6.5 percent increase a year earlier.
"It's a continuation of a generally decelerating economic picture," said McNamara, noting that high gasoline prices were partly to blame.
February gasoline prices were 30 percent to 35 percent higher than a year ago, he said, and U.S. consumers pumped 3.2 percent less of the fuel.
"It's an indicator of consumer mobility. When you start to see people pumping less gas, it tends to be negative for overall economic growth," McNamara said.
Looking ahead, he said he expects some volatility in monthly same-store sales numbers as this year's early Easter holiday will drag all Easter-related sales into March.
"You'll probably see some decent numbers in March at the expense of April," McNamara said. "It's hard to find evidence of a real pick-up."