NEW YORK – Shoppers braved February's chill to hand retailers surprisingly strong sales gains, extending the momentum from a strong holiday season and providing evidence of a strengthening economic recovery.
Worries are growing, however, that rising gas prices could sap shoppers' spending in the spring.
Among major retailers reporting February results Thursday, Limited Brands Inc., J.C. Penney Co. and Macy's Inc. reported gains that beat Wall Street expectations. Luxury retailers including Saks Inc. saw sales surge as the affluent kept spending.
There were only a few stragglers. Target Corp. announced an increase slightly below analysts' projections. And Gap reported a bigger-than-expected drop.
Stronger sales from a diverse group of retailers showed that a broader range of shoppers are benefiting from the economic recovery, says Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Shopping Centers.
The ICSC said that its index of 28 retailers rose 4.2 percent for February compared with the same month last year, well above the trade group's projections for a 2.5 percent to 3 percent increase. The gain, which builds on a 3.7 percent increase last February, follows a revised 4.7 percent increase in January and the best holiday season since 2006.
The figures are based on revenue at stores open at least a year and are considered a key indicator of a retailer's health.
"There's disposable income out there," said Laura Gurski, a partner at A. T. Kearney. But with rising prices for food and gas, "it's going to be a long spring," she said. Low-income shoppers are already feeling the pinch, she noted, and that's only going to trickle up to middle-income consumers.
February started slowly because snowstorms kept some shoppers home, but weather improved throughout the month, helping to perk up sales of spring clothing. Cato Corp. and discounter Fred's Inc. both said they saw customer counts and sales pick up as shoppers began spending income tax refunds.
The improving economy is also making shoppers feel better about spending. Consumer confidence in February rose to its highest point in more than three years, according to the Conference Board.
Signs are increasing that the job market is improving as well. The Labor Department said Thursday that the number of people requesting unemployment benefits last week plunged to a nearly three-year low, bolstering the likelihood that companies will increase hiring this year. Applications are now at their lowest level since May 2008
Still, economists worry that rising prices for gas and other household costs will cause shoppers, particularly the low- to middle-income brackets, to pull back. The national average is now at $3.427 per gallon. Prices will reach $3.50 to $3.75 by spring, some analysts say.
Meanwhile, many retailers, including Macy's, Kohl's and J.C. Penney, say they're raising prices on clothing as costs rise for raw materials, particularly cotton.
March should be particularly difficult because Easter, which is April 24, is three weeks later than last year. That calendar quirk is expected to shift pre-Easter sales of goods like candy and children's dresses from March to April, depressing business this month. That's why analysts look at the two months combined to judge spring selling.
Target officials last week told investors that it wasn't depending on a major jolt from the economy to spur consumer spending and instead is relying on its 5 percent discount for shoppers paying with their credit or debit cards and its expansion of food to lure shoppers.
The discounter's relatively weak 1.8 percent increase in February revenue at stores open at least a year raises questions about how well that's working. Analysts expected a 2.2 percent increase. The company has said it expects its two initiatives to raise the figure by 4 percent to 5 percent for the year.
Target predicts it will see a mid- to upper-single-digit percentage decline in March, followed by a mid-teens increase in April. Combining both months, Target expects a low-single-digit gain.
Among department stores, Macy's, J.C. Penney Co. and Kohl's Corp all exceeded estimates. Macy's reported a 5.8 percent increase in revenue at stores open at least a year, and Terry J. Lundgren, chairman, president and CEO said in a release that shopper reaction to spring clothing has been "encouraging." Analysts had expected a 3.7 percent gain.
At J.C. Penney, the figure rose 6.4 percent, exceeding the 4.2 percent estimate. Kohl's enjoyed a 5 percent gain, better than the 4.1 percent increase projected by Wall Street.
Saks' revenue at stores open at least a year surged 15.3 percent, well past the 4.9 percent estimate.
Gap Inc. struggled. The clothing retailer's figures were down 3 percent, dragged down by declines at Gap stores, Banana Republic and Old Navy. Analysts had expected a 0.9 percent dip.
Costco on Wednesday reported a 7 percent gain, above the 6.7 percent estimate, partly driven by higher gas prices.
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