NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — Despite the shadow of rising gasoline prices, shoppers went out to spend in March and answered to an earlier arrival of Easter, warmer weather and a brighter and fresher spring assortment.
That delivered retailers’ sales upside for the 13th time in the past 15 months, with total March comparable sales rising 3.9%, topping the 3.3% gain analysts were looking for, according to Retail Metrics. Excluding the decline at drugstore Walgreen Co., total sales in March rose 6.5%, with about two-thirds of retailers exceeding expectations, Retail Metrics said.
“Consumers are shopping,” said Barbara Kahn, a professor and director of the Wharton School’s Jay H. Baker Retailing Center, in an interview. “The weather is warmer. Easter is here. There’s a lot of excitement. The fashion merchandise seems to be hitting the right note. There’s a reason to buy. Gas price is an issue, but the numbers are starting to solidify. It’s a good indicator.”
Sales at discounter Target Corp. and department store operator Macy’s Inc. both rose 7.3%. No.1 U.S. clothing chain Gap Inc. and Victoria’s Secret parent Limited Brands Inc. both saw an 8% increase. Upscale retailer Nordstrom Inc. reported an 8.6% increase, driven by demand for handbags, kids apparel and cosmetics. They all exceeded analysts’ estimates. Mid-priced department store operator Kohl’s Corp., while a laggard, also reported a better-than-expected 3.6% increase,
In another positive sector note, Bed, Bath & Beyond Inc. jumped 8.5% on Thursday after its fourth-quarter profit topped views on a 6.8% same-store sales increase. Home furnishings chain Pier 1 Imports Inc. rose almost 1% after reporting a 10% same-store sales increase.
T.J. Maxx parent TJX Cos. and Ross Stores Inc., so-called off-price retailers that sell namebrand merchandise at a discount, both posted better-than-expected 10% sales gains and raised their first-quarter outlooks. Target also raised its first-quarter profit forecast minus items to $1.04 to $1.10 a share from a prior guidance of as much as $1.07 a share.
“March sales were well above our expectations, reflecting a healthy underlying trend combined with the benefit of an earlier Easter and favorable weather this year,” said Chief Executive Gregg Steinhafel, adding that Target’s April sales would likely slow to a percentage rate in the low-to-mid single digits.
March is an important month for retailers, representing 40% of their fiscal first-quarter sales, Barclays Capital analyst Stacy Pak said.
In another sign of brighter consumer mood, Easter, the third-biggest selling holiday behind Christmas and Valentine’s Day, is expected to see average consumer spending rising 11% to $145.28, a National Retail Federation’s survey showed.
According to Weather Trends International, March weather in many areas east of the Rockies saw the second warmest weather, if not the warmest, in the last 100 years, lifting demand for apparel, grills and grass seed.
Weather not only brought shoppers out, it also spurred them to buy spring clothing early in the season at full price, analysts said. Retailers such as Gap also have done a good job of unveiling a new assortment of colored denim and capri pants as well as tops and outfits with brighter palette and prints and stripes, giving shoppers a reason to replenish their wardrobe, they said.
Color “is the most meaningful trend to hit apparel since the premium- priced denim craze” hit a wall with the economic downturn in 2008, said Avondale Partners analyst Mark Montagna, adding he expects the color trend could last for at least two years. “Color appears to be the answer to the long asked question of ‘when will we see something new in apparel?’”
Still, looking ahead, Easter falling two weeks earlier this year compared to last year likely pulled forward some of April’s anticipated sales. A better measure of consumer demand would be to look at combined March and April sales, analysts said. Citigroup analyst Deborah Weinswig estimated the Easter shift aided March sales by as much as 2 percentage points.
Retailers also said Mother’s Day falling later this year will hurt April sales.
Sales in last year’s April rose 8.7%, Retail Metrics said, adding that gasoline prices nearing $4 a gallon in many areas also are expected to take a bite out of consumers’ discretionary budgets.
Gap in the sun
Gap’s 8% gain marked its second straight increase since a sales gain in June. Sales at Gap North America rose 9%. They were up 5% at Banana Republic and jumped 11% at Old Navy. International sales rose unexpectedly. The company said it’s pleased with customer response to its products across all brands.
“This should further bolster confidence in a turn at Gap brand,” said Caris & Co. analyst Dorothy Lakner, who raised her rating on the stock on Monday.
Macy’s raised its combined March-April period projection to a gain of as much as 4.5% from as much as 3.5% previously. April sales, however, are projected to be up only 1% to 1.3% — hurt by the Easter and Mother’s Day calendar shifts, the company said.
“The early warm weather drew attention to our outstanding assortments of fresh spring goods, which were received enthusiastically by customers,” said Chief Executive Terry Lundgren. “Our strength in performance was balanced across Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, stores and online, geographies and families of business.”
At, Limited Brands, demand was led by a 10% increase at Victoria’s Secret, which relaunched its Very Sexy push-up bra and introduced a Very Sexy fragrance.
Among the teen segment, Zumiez Inc. sales rose 14%, beating the 8.9% consensus estimate, helped by an increase in average unit retail price.
Among some of the disappointments, Costco Wholesale Corp. sales rose 6%, missing estimates of a 6.7% increase. Excluding the impact of gasoline inflation and currency translations, sales would have risen 6%, also missing expectations. Demand gained in food and apparel, offset by lower electronics sales.
“The result was solid, but unspectacular,” said Deutsche Bank analyst Charles Grom, adding Costco faced a tough year-earlier March sales comparison of a 13% increase.
Teen retailer Buckle Inc. sales rose 6.4%, missing the 8.8% average estimate. That sent its shares down 6.7%.