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Department store stocks rally amid talk of improved trends

Shares of the major department stores moved higher Wednesday amid favorable comments from several management teams that signaled the steps they're taking to boost sales are starting to, or will soon, bear fruit.

Speaking at the Piper Jaffray Consumer Conference in New York City, J.C. Penney CEO Marvin Ellison reiterated his confidence that the department store will be able to achieve its full-year same-store sales goal of 3 percent to 4 percent growth, as trends were positive in the quarter to date through Memorial Day.

His comments followed those from PVH CEO Manny Chirico, who presented earlier and said trends for its Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands have gotten "slightly better" at department stores, with the Calvin Klein brand generating positive comparable sales at Macy's.

And though Nordstrom CFO Mike Koppel did not comment on the company's current sales trends, he said it has done a better job aligning its inventory levels with the pace of sales during the first and second quarters.

Nordstrom also will slow the pace of opening off-price Rack stores. Koppel said the company hoped to have 270 Rack stores open across the U.S. by 2020, a goal that was 10 percent lower than its prior forecast of 300 stores during that timeframe.

Shares of all three presenters' stocks, as well as Macy's, rose slightly in afternoon trading, as the broader S&P retail index climbed roughly 2 percent.

"The consumer's in really positive shape from a financial standpoint," Ellison said, citing wage increases, better job stability and appreciating home prices. However, he said, shoppers continue to hold back on apparel spending as they shift their attention — and dollars — toward experiences. They also remain cautious in an unpredictable economic environment, he said.

As such, Penney's is relying on internal initiatives — including a further expansion of its Sephora stores and its reentry into appliances — to drive comparable sales during the second half. The company reported a 0.4 percent same-store sales decline in the first quarter. But on June 1, Penney's said it had generated positive comparable-store sales quarter-to-date through Memorial Day.

PVH's Chirico attributed in-demand merchandise at its Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein brands as drivers behind its relative strength at department stores. As brands including Michael Kors are pulling back on the amount of goods they place in those stores, Chirico said his brands continue to be sought after.

"The reason it's being [reduced] is it's not working," Chirico said of other brands.

Though he does expect more stores to close, wholesale can still be "one of the most profitable channels" for a brand, Chirico said.

In response to Nordstrom's sales slowdown, Koppel said the company has made strides in paring down the amount of merchandise it has on hand, and has likewise reduced its future inventory plans. However, he said that due to the ease with which consumers can compare prices across the internet, "you may be in pretty good shape" with inventories, but if someone else isn't, it can pressure your performance. That's because those with excess inventory may slash prices just to move the products.

Koppel said that sales of its full-price items continue to be in demand, and that it's the clearance merchandise in its traditional stores that has struggled.

The company has made a "slight adjustment" to its growth plans for its Rack division, where sales have slowed over the past several quarters. Koppel attributed the more measured pace of expansion to quicker-than-expected growth in online sales, and the fact that Rack stores can be opened more quickly than its mall-based locations, in roughly a year.

Still, the department store set remains under pressure. According to the latest data from the Commerce Department, sales at department stores fell 5.8 percent last month compared with the prior year, and are down 4.4 percent so far this year.

But on Wednesday, investors appeared to welcome the more positive tone. Penney's shares were recently up more than 5.6 percent, while Nordstrom rose 2.4 percent, and Macy's rose 2.7 percent. Shares of PVH rose more than 5 percent during Wednesday's trading, and were recently trading hands up 4.7 percent.