Prolonged Winter Puts Retail Sales in Deep Freeze

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Abnormally cold weather curbs consumer demand for spring goods and apparel, but some companies, including drug chains and dollar stores, are benefiting from the spring's delay.

"Right now, March is trending the coldest since 1996 in the U.S. It's also the snowiest March since 2002," said Evan Gold, senior vice president of client services at Planalytics, a company that analyzes how weather affects consumer demand.

Consumers were shopping very differently the weeks leading up to Easter this year than they were a year ago. Last year, March was the warmest on record for more than 100 years, Gold said. This year's shoppers were not after summer dresses and sunglasses. Planalytics evaluated that demand for shorts fell 12 percent in the fourth week of March versus a year ago and 9 percent for sandals. Interest in lawn and garden items fell 21 percent, delaying the most lucrative season for home improvement stores.

"Springtime is ultimately Christmas for folks like Home Depot and Lowe's, Ace Hardware," Gold said. But cold weather will likely to continue for a few more weeks, he said.

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The pattern reverses a trend. According to Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. analyst Richard Jaffe, the retail apparel sector was flattered by warm weather over the past several years in March, but this season it faced challenges in selling spring items with the colder temperatures. This might lead to overstock, markdowns and smaller margins this year, he said. Jaffe expressed particular concern over the teen and kid's retailers like American Eagle, Aeropostal, Abercrombie & Fitch and Children's Place.

Children's Place reported its fourth-quarter earnings this week and cut its first-quarter forecast, joining a batch of retailers blaming the weather for lowered earnings expectations. The children's store cut expectations for earnings per share to a range of 60 cents to 65 cents a share. Previously analysts expected the company to earn $1.20 a share on average, according to Thomson Reuters.

"The lower estimate [from Children's Place] for the first quarter was not necessarily a surprise, but the magnitude was the most alarming," Citigroup analyst Susan Anderson said, who has a buy rating on the Children's Place stock with a price target of $58. She added that retailers have been lowering their estimates to "very conservative" as there are many headwinds to the consumer spending, like a payroll tax spike, higher gas prices and cold weather.

Anderson said that "the worst is over" and consumers will start buying again once the mercury beings to rise.

Another sign of the weather-related downside is that the same-store sales rose 1 percent in the week ending on March 23 year-over-year, which was the slowest pace since Feb. 27, 2010, according to an International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs index.

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On the flipside, business was stronger at drug stores and dollar stores, along with office and furniture stores, according to a note from the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Dollar General reported fourth-quarter results last Monday, which were far above analysts' expectations, and the company also projected stronger sales growth for 2013.

"Dollar General has been impacted less than others by the weather," said Meridith Adler, managing director at Barclays Capital. She added that its customers are looking for value and Dollar General provides "decent quality and a decent shopping experience." Dollar General stock bears buy rating with a price target of $58.

Adler also said that severe weather is more conducive for people to come down with the cold or flu, thus boosting sales in the pharmacies. She has a buy rating on CVS pharmacy with a price target of $57, noting that the company is very well positioned in pharmacy benefit management system.

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Also, the weather has not been the same across the entire U.S. California is already enjoying a warm spring, said Gold of Planalytics.

"The west is going to be a more favorable location this spring," he said. That means retailers with a larger concentration of stores on the West Coast may fare better than those in other regions.

-By CNBC's Anna Andrianova; Follow her on Twitter @AndrianovaAnna

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Stifel makes a market in the securities of Children's Place, Aeropostale, Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle, and expects to receive investment banking services from Children's Place and Aeropostale in the next three months.

Citigroup makes a market in Children's Place and received compensation for non-investment banking services from the company within the past year.

Barclays has an investment banking relationship with CVS Caremark and Dollar General.