Retailers Post Strong March Sales, But Gas Prices Cloud Outlook

An early Easter and strong demand for clothing boosted U.S. retail sales in March, but rising gasoline prices and a soft housing market cast doubts about spending in coming months, according to data published by SpendingPulse.

Consumer spending outside the auto sector rose 0.3% last month on a seasonally adjust basis, a touch higher than a 0.2% gain in February, said SpendingPulse, the retail data service of MasterCard Advisors, an arm of MasterCard Worldwide.

SpendingPulse's "core" gauge on retail sales climbed 0.2% last month, a tad higher than the 0.1% rise in February. The core reading excludes autos, gasoline and building materials, whose sales tend to be volatile month-to-month.

"Overall, the spring retail season has gotten off to a good start," said Michael McNamara, SpendingPulse's vice president of research and analysis.

Easter fell on April 8 this year, about a week earlier than in 2006, so holiday-related items such as candies sold mostly during retailers' March sales periods.

In addition to an earlier Easter this year, sales by discounters and general merchandisers were boosted by a jump in demand for clothing. Year-over-year apparel sales rose 5.8% in March, more than double the 2.5% gain in February, the report showed.

Despite a solid start to spring, SpendingPulse's McNamara cautioned that rising gasoline prices and anxiety about a weak housing market could cause consumers to reduce trips to restaurants and shopping malls, especially in the South and Midwest, where driving is the main mode of transport.

Retail gasoline prices averaged $2.80 a gallon last week, up 10 cents from the prior week, the Energy Information Administration said on Monday.

"The negative effects from gasoline and housing on consumer spending are still there, and they are having rippling effects in some (retail) areas," McNamara said.

The housing slowdown continued to rein in demand on furniture and home appliances, he said.

Last month, year-over-year sales of furniture were down 1.7%, and consumer electronics, which include home appliances, were off 1.1%, McNamara said.

Beating Estimates

According to Thomson Financial, about 77% of retailers they track outpaced estimates for same-store sales, a key metric which tracks sales in stores opened at least a year. About 23% fell short of estimates, Thomson said.

Wal-Mart Stores was among those reporting a stronger-than-expected performance with 4% increase in March same-store sales. Analysts, on average, had been expecting a same-store sales to rise 1.9%, according to a Reuters survey, while Wal-Mart had forecast an increase of 1% to 2%.

However, the company said that for April, it expects U.S. same-store sales to be flat to down 2%, and warned it may miss first-quarter earnings expectations.

Rival Target reported a 12% increase in same-store sales for the month. That was the strongest showing of all the discount retailers.

Costco Wholesale said its same-store sales rose 6% in March, ahead of analyst expectations. Analysts surveyed by expected same-store sales to rise 5%.

J.C. Penney same-store sales rose 10.6%, also outpacing both analysts' and its own forecasts. Analysts on average had expected a rise of 7.7%, according to a Reuters survey.

The Plano, Texas-based company said total department store sales rose 13.3% to $1.44 billion in the five weeks ended April 7, while catalog and Internet sales were down 1.1%.

Teen-wear apparel retailer American Eagle Outfitters saw its same-store sales jump 20% in March. This performance was solidly above the 11.1% estimate reached by analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial.

Helped by the strong pace of sales in March, American Eagle raised its first-quarter earnings forecast by a penny to 35 cents a share. Analysts surveyed by Thomson were estimating the company would earn 33 cents a share in the first quarter.

After 10 consecutive months of negative sales, Pacific Sunwear of California posted an impressive increase of 14.1% in its same-store sales.

However, the news was not good across the board. Companies such as Sharper Imageand Wilson Leather continued to struggle.

Bebe Stores said same-store sales in March were weaker than it expected and its fiscal third-quarter earnings would be at or below the low-end of its prior estimate, which called for earnings in the range of 13 cents to 16 cents a share.

The Brisbane, Calif., women's apparel retailer said same-store sales for the five weeks ended April 7 inched up 0.1% from a year-ago.

According to Thomson Financial, analysts were expecting Bebe to show a gain of 2.6% in March same-store sales.

Pier 1 Imports , which has posted 13 consecutive months of declining same-store sales, said it will no longer report them on a monthly basis. Instead, it will now report sales every quarter.

The home furnishings retailer on Thursday reported that its fiscal fourth-quarter net loss widened to $58.7 million, or 67 cents a share, from $9.98 million, or 11 cents a share, a year earlier. The loss was narrower than expected.