Retailers Largely Outpace Sales Estimates in April

The late timing of the Easter holiday helped retailers report April sales growth that outpaced analysts' estimates, however, there were a few signs that consumers are facing increasing pressure from gas prices.

Man shopping for shirts
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Man shopping for shirts

On average retail sales rose 8.9 percent, outpacing an average analyst estimate of 8.2 percent, according to Thomson Reuters.

"I was pleasantly surprised by the momentum that has continued into April despite the inflationary pressures that have been building," said Laura Gurski, partner and head of A.T. Kearney's retail practice.

Momentum in consumer spending began to build during the back-to-school selling season last year. Growth had slowed a bit in March as consumers delayed some purchases because Easter fell three weeks later this year than it did last year.

Some of the biggest surprises came from Hot Topic , Limited, and Costco Wholesale .

Limited reported that same-store sales rose 20 percent in April, fueled by strong growth at both its Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works stores, which offset a same-store sales decline at its La Senza stores.

Limited now expects to earn between 37 cents to 39 cents a share, which is better than analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters were expecting.

Although several retailers raised their earnings forecasts for the quarter, there were some noteworthy shortfalls and the trends cut across the various retail sectors.

According to Gurski, smart merchandising made the difference. She said, consumers are shopping at retailers that have been able to offer products that provide a good value and are on trend.

The combination "makes the consumer feel good about making a purchase," she said.

Still, it will be interesting to see if some of the retailers who logged shortfalls in April were a foreshadowing of things to come.

Discounter Target posted a same-store sales gain of 13.1%, but said the increase was below its own expectations. The company and said its shoppers were facing increasing pressure on their household budgets due to rising prices for food and apparel as well as higher energy costs.

Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel described consumer shopping patterns as "very cautious" in the spending in the weeks ahead of the Easter holiday.

Gasoline prices have pushed past the $4 a gallon mark in several states and unemployment remains high. Consumers also will be seeing rising costs for clothing and other goods, as prices of transporting goods and buying commodities such as cotton rise.

Sales of gasoline helped boost results at warehouse clubstore Costco , which posted a 12 percent same-store sales gain, topping the 9 percent gain analysts were expecting, according to Thomson Reuters.

"Costco had the type of April sales performance that captured the very essence of the news flow that dominated during the month: inflation, weak dollar, and a slightly more guarded U.S. consumer," Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi said in a research note.

Sozzi noted that sales of fresh food and sundries at Costco were boosted by inflation, which intensified in March. However, more consumers are signing up for Costco memberships, viewing it as a destination to save some money.

Sozzi expects consumers are savvier now than they were before the recession, and save up and splurge for key events such as Easter. As a result, Sozzi expects we are headed for "a summer of moderation in terms of sales as gas price creep and inflation weigh on the minds of many during the seasonally unimportant months" of the retail calendar.

Still, some results said more about what is going on at the company than in the broader economy.

Although Gap solidly outpaced same-store sales estimates, the company warned that its earnings for the quarter ending in April would fall short of expectations.

Gap's sales have been weak for several months, with the April sales being the one exception. The company has been struggling to gain traction with consumers, and it announced that it parted ways with Patrick Robinson, one of its top in-house designers as it tries to improve its performance.

"If the product's right, it's going to work," said Dana Telsey, CEO and Chief Research Officer, at Telsey Advisory Group, citing Limited and Macy's performances as an example.

Telsey expects higher gas prices to hurt the spending power of middle- and lower-income consumers, but that people will continue to shop at stores where the merchandise stands out from their competitors.

A full list of the results follows:

April 2011 Same-Store Sales

April 2011 Estimates
April 2011 Actuals
Costco 9.0% 12%
BJ's Wholesale 8.4% 12.2%
Target 13.6% 13.1%
JC Penney 8.8% 6.4%
Kohl's Department Store 15.5% 10.2%
JW Nordstrom 7.8% 7.6%
Saks Department Store 10.3% 10.2%
Stage Stores 16.3% 15.1%
Macy's 8.3% 10.8%
Gap (1.0%) 8%
TJX 3.4% 5%
Limited 11.6% 20%
Ross Stores 5.3% 3%
Stein Mart 3.0% 4.2%
Hot Topic 3.5% 10.5%
Wet Seal 8.0% 11.8%
The Buckle 13.0% 14.5%
Zumiez 13.8% 17.5%
Walgreen 3.6% 3.4%
Source: Thomson Reuters; Figures in parenthesis are losses.