Most Retailers Top Estimates, Some See Weak March

Despite storms and rising gasoline prices, many retailers reported monthly sales that were stronger than analysts estimated, but some warned that March could be weaker due the timing of the Easter holiday.

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The Thomson Reuters Same-Store Sales Index rose 4.2 percent in February, topping not only estimates, which called for an increase of 3.6 percent,but also growth in the year-ago period.

February is the least important month of most retailer's fiscal first quarter calendar, as it generally is focused on clearing out winter-related merchandise and preparing for the release of goods for the warmer weather ahead.

Target, which was one of the few retailers falling short of estimates, was among the retailers warning that it would be hurt by the shift in the timing of Easter, which falls three weeks later than last year.

"This means March may be abnormally soft as consumers digest the recent headlines and the associated negative hit on their budgets (gasoline, food), and save up for Easter-targeted deals in April," said Brian Sozzi, an analyst at Wall Street Securities.

Still, for the latest month, many retailers managed to top estimates for same-store sales.

Among the strongest performances was Limited Brands , which saw continued strength at its Victoria Secret and Bath & Body Works stores.

Limited said same-store sales rose 12 percent in February from the year-ago period, outpacing the 8.5 percent average analyst estimate reported by Thomson Reuters.

Teen retailers Wet Seal and Zumiez also topped analysts' estimates.

This is the first month that their rivals Abercrombie & Fitch , Aeropostale and American Eagle are no longer reporting same-store sales on a monthly basis. Those retailers joined a growing number of retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores that do not report same-store sales growth each month.

Macy's briefly ceased its monthly sales reports, but it now issues them each month.

In February, the department store benefited from strong growth in its online sales, which rose 30.9 percent during the month. Those results helped Macy's top analysts' estimates for the month.

Macy's same-store sales grew 5.8 percent, compared with the 3.7 percent estimate published by Thomson Reuters.

The online sales may have gotten a boost from the bad weather early in the month, which may have forced some shoppers online to do their shopping.

Still, the bad weather didn't keep Macy's shoppers from buying spring merchandise, and CEO Terry Lundgren said he was encouraged by customer reaction to these goods.

Still, Macy's also expects March same-store sales to be down compared with the year-ago period, while April sales should be up. Not only does Macy's expect to be pinched in March from the shift in the Easter timing, but it also will move a popular cosmetics promotion to April from March.

Other department stores also saw stronger sales, especially at the high-end. Both JW Nordstrom and Saks easily topped analysts' estimates.

Nordstrom said sales rose 7.3 percent, compared with the 4.2 percent analysts were expecting, while Saks sales jumped 15.3 percent, which was more than triple the projected 15.3 percent gain analysts estimated.

Ed Yruma, an analyst at Keybanc Capital Markets, said he likes shares of Nordstrom.

"We think they have really good momentum," Yruma said.

High-end retailers have been benefiting from improved sentiment among consumers, especially those that are more affluent.

Still, the news was not universally good.

Gap said same-store sales fell 3 percent, a much wider loss than the 0.9 percent decline analysts had estimated.

Target also fell short of estimates, although the company said the results were "in line" with its own expectations for the month. The discounter's same-store sales rose 1.8 percent from last year, compared with the average analyst estimate of 2.2 percent, Thomson Reuters reported.

Target also said it expects the shift in the timing of Easter to result in a "mid- to upper-single-digit decline" in its March same-store sales, followed by a "mid-teens" increase in its April Same-store sales. These two results would result in a "low-single-digit increase" in Target's same-store sales for the combined March and April period.

Stage Stores was one of the few retailers to say its performance was hurt by the weather. The company said its same-store sales fell 7.2 percent in February, missing analysts' estimates, which called for sales to rise 2.5 percent, by a wide margin.

Stage Store President and CEO Andy Hall said that the retailer's traffic trends "remain solid," and he added that the company said same-store sales growth of 10 percent in the second half of the month. However, that growth was not enough to offset the impact of lost sales earlier in the month.

About 51 percent the of the company's business was in states hit hard by storms at the start of February, the company said.

February 2011 Same-Store Sales

February 2011 Estimates
February 2011 Actuals
Costco 6.7% 8.0%
BJ's Wholesale 3.3% 5.5%
Target 2.2% 1.8%
JC Penney 4.2% 6.4%
Kohl's Department Store 4.1% 5%
Dillards Department Store 2.5% (1%)
JW Nordstrom 4.2% 7.3%
Saks Department Store 4.9% 15.3%
Stage Stores 2.5% (7.2%)
Macy's 3.7% 5.8%
Gap (0.9%) (3%)
TJX 2.8% 3%
Limited 8.5% 12%
Ross Stores 1.7% 3%
Stein Mart 1.0% 8.2%
Hot Topic (5.0%) (1.4%)
Wet Seal (1.0%) 7.0%
The Buckle 2.8% 2.1%
Zumiez 4.2% 12.8%
Walgreen 3.5% 3.1%
Rite Aid 1.5% 1.0%
Source: Thomson Reuters; Figures in parenthesis are losses.