Frugality Drags Retail Sales, but Boosts Discounters

A number of top U.S. retailers reported disappointing April sales on Thursday as consumers gravitated toward discount chains and bad weather delayed spring shopping in much of the country.

Wall Street analysts got ahead of themselves with upbeat expectations, said AlixPartners' Managing Director Steve Nevill, noting that unemployment remained high, and consumers were still worried about their prospects.

"I still don't see us breaking out of this average performance until something big happens to lift consumer confidence," Nevill said.

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L Brands, which operates Victoria's Secret, said sales at stores open at least a year, were up 2 percent last month, but missed analysts' estimates at all of its major brands, including Bath & Body Works. The stock was down 1.3 percent.

Costco Wholesale reported a 4 percent gain, slightly less than expected, in part because of sharply lower gas prices. Still, the warehouse club operator said sales of food and consumer electronics were good.

In contrast, so-called off-price chains TJX, which operates T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, and Ross Stores both easily beat Wall Street targets, the latest proof that shoppers remained price conscious despite gradual improvements in the job market.

Ross raised its first-quarter profit forecast after reporting a 7 percent gain in same-store sales. Larger rival TJX said same-stores sales rose 8 percent last month. TJX shares added 0.8 percent, while Ross was up slightly.

Gap, the last company in the Thomson Reuters Same-Store Sales Index to report, will release its numbers after the stock market closes.

Aggressive Discounting

April sales got a boost from the timing of the Easter holiday in late March. With the weather cool in much of the country, many shoppers' delayed purchases of spring clothing.

Janney Capital Markets analyst Adrienne Tennant said in a note this week that retailers were more aggressive in offering discounts in April, but things eased at the end of the month, suggesting stores had not over-ordered and making it likely they would avoid panicked markdowns.

Despite strong hiring in April, consumer morale lagged the data. U.S. consumer sentiment dipped last month as Americans remained concerned about prospects for employment and their finances, a Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan survey late in April found.

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Fred's and Cato each reported slim sales gains last month.

Retailers that don't report monthly sales posted disappointing numbers. Ann, the parent of the Ann Taylor chain, and Wet Seal each recorded declines in same-store sales for the first quarter.

Last week, drugstore chain Rite Aid said same-store sales fell 4 percent in April, largely as many lower-cost generic drugs came to market in the last year. Larger rival Walgreen reported a modest 1.2 percent rise, hurt by a drop in sales of general merchandise.

Others did manage to buck the trend. Teen retailers The Buckle and Zumiez reported much better-than-expected April sales on Thursday, and American Apparel had a 3 percent gain.

As previously announced, TJX and Ross will no longer report monthly sales after April. That will leave 11 U.S. chains reporting monthly sales, down from a peak of 68 in 2006. In the years since, big names such as Macy's, Wal-Mart Stores and Best Buy have dropped out of the same-store sales index.

Analysts expected 13 top U.S. retailers who still report monthly sales, including TJX Cos and Gap, to post a 4.3 percent rise in same-store sales for April, according to Thomson Reuters. That's better than the 0.8 percent gain a year earlier.

The S&P Retail Index was flat in mid-morning trade.

By Reuters