Retail Sales Slow in April After Early Start to Spring

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With the early start of spring and Easter behind us, retail sales slowed in April, with many large U.S. retailers falling short of analysts' estimates.

The Thomson Reuters same-store sales index showed a rise of 0.8 percent for April sales at stores open at least a year, short of analysts' estimates for an increase of 1.5 percent. Sales in March had risen 4.3 percent.

Retailers were up against tough comparisons last year, when retail sales jumped 9.0 percent, according to Thomson Reuters. Last year, April benefited from Easter, which fell in late April.

Sales of warm-weather merchandise also may have been pulled forward into March as temperatures in during the month were much warmer than usual.

Target , Costco , Macy's and Gap are among those posting disappointing same-store sales for the month.

Some analysts have suggested it will be better to look at combined sales for March and April to get a true idea of how the consumer is faring. For example, Target said same-store sales rose 1.1 percent in April, missing estimates, but the retailer said it expects its same-store sales growth for the quarter will be the highest in more than six years.

Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel said the company received an early boost from Easter and warm-than-usual weather, and the "underlying sales trend remains quite healthy."

Another positive sign came from Gap . Despite the company's weaker-than-expected sales this month, it estimated quarterly earnings above analysts' expectations.

Gap said total first-quarter sales rose about 6 percent to $3.49 billion, topping the analysts' $3.44 billion projection, and it estimated earnings at 44 cents to 46 cents a share, while analysts expected 40 cents, according to Thomson Reuters.

This suggests the early buying binge was helpful to retailers as they were able to sell more items at full price and rein in discounts later in the quarter.

Gap wasn't the only retailer raising earnings forecasts. Aeropostale , which no longer reports sales on a monthly basis, also raised its earnings forecast, citing stronger-than-expected sales growth during the quarter.

Aeropostale, which operates children's and teen retail chains, raised its per-share earnings estimate to 12 cents to 13 cents, from its prior projection of 8 cents to 10 cents.

On Wednesday, rival teen apparel retailer American Eagle Outfitters also raised its earnings forecast for the quarter.

Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics, said he would not extrapolate too much from the April results due to all the noise this month.

"May will be a better gauge as to where we stand on consumer spending," Perkins said. "Summer merchandise is flowing into stores and the newness should spark selling in May. Mother's Day falls a bit later this year, which should benefit May results as well."

In general, specialty apparel retailers fared better than other retail sectors.

Limited , the operator of Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works, was one of the retailers that saw continued strength in April. Limited outpaced estimates and narrowed its earnings forecast to the high-end of the earlier estimates.

Zumiez , another teen clothing retailer, also topped estimates, with a 10.1 percent gain in same-store sales.

Off-price retailers TJX Cos. and Ross Stores also outpaced estimates and raised its first-quarter earnings forecast.

A table of the results follows:

Same-Store Sales, April 2012

April 2012 Estimates
April 2012 Actuals
Costco Wholesale 5.1% 4.0%
Target 2.8% 1.1%
Fred's 0.6% (0.3%)
Kohl's Department (1.0%) (3.5%)
JW Nordstrom 5.8% 8.5%
Saks Department Store 4.0% 2.0%
Stage Stores (4.8%) (1%)
Macy's 1.9% 1.2%
Gap (0.8%) (2.0%)
TJX 4.0% 6.0%
Limited 4.0% 6.0%
Ross Stores 4.0% 7.0%
Stein Mart (2.1%) (1.6%)
Wet Seal (9.0%) (9.6%)
The Buckle 0.9% 1.0%
Zumiez 6.8% 10.1%
Walgreen (5.1%) (6.4%)
Source: Thomson Reuters, company reports. Figures in parenthesis are losses.