At Gap, despite a 7 percent drop in fourth-quarter comparable sales, the company managed to work through its slow-moving fall and winter products, and has already set its floor with the first round of spring merchandise. At J.C. Penney, the department store's 2.6 percent lift in inventories was matched by its fourth-quarter sales growth.
And at Macy's, where warm temperatures and an abundance of cold-weather merchandise left the retailer saddled with a 4.6 percent boost in inventory at the end of the third quarter, those levels were trimmed to a still high — but more manageable — increase of 1.6 percent.
Though numerous challenges remain for the sector, which is battling against apparel price deflation and a shift away from spending on traditional categories, some analysts are optimistic that these lean product levels and an infusion of new merchandise will spur more profitable sales in March and April.
"While it remains early in the season, we are optimistic that we'll see an improvement in sales trends," Guggenheim Securities analyst Howard Tubin told investors. "We believe that warmer temperatures relative to last year, pent-up demand for apparel and new spring product will act as catalysts to drive shoppers into stores."