Retailers Got Super Bowl Boost in Feb

A shift in the timing of the Super Bowl (search) boosted February sales at Wal-Mart and other discount retailers, while youth-oriented clothing sellers posted sharply higher results.

Discounters benefited from the February date of the football championship game, which was played in January last year, as shoppers stocked up on party supplies and food ahead of the game.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), whose shares rose 2 percent in morning trading Thursday, reported a 4.1 percent gain in sales at stores open for at least a year. The same-store sales growth was the retailer's biggest gain in nine months.

Analysts, on average, were expecting a rise of 3.8 percent, according to a Reuters poll.

Wal-Mart, the largest U.S. retailer, said it expects March same-store sales to be at least as good as February's.

Wal-Mart rival Target Corp. (TGT) said same-store sales rose 9 percent in February, above its forecast for growth of 4 percent to 6 percent. A strong performance by its stores in the South, which were less affected by winter storms, keyed the growth.

A rebounding economy and relatively low interest rates are giving consumers the confidence to spend, said Richard Hastings, retail economist with Variant Research.

"We are still in a continuation of job recovery and easy borrowing conditions, and that's the platform for the strength in chain-store sales," Hastings said.

Retailers faced a tough comparison with February 2004, when the companies reported 7 percent comparable sales growth.

Although high fuel prices kept some consumers off the roads and hurt certain chains, gasoline sales helped boost sales growth at BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. (BJ). The company said same-store sales rose 6.7 percent in February. Fresh food and grocery sales also contributed to the rise.

Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST), the largest U.S. warehouse club, said same-store sales rose 7 percent. But it warned that the average Wall Street estimates for third-quarter and full-year earnings were at the high end of the company's own expectations.

The S&P retailing index was up 2.79 points, or 0.63 percent, in morning trading.

Youth-oriented retailers continued to show strength in February after a strong holiday season.

"Those stores have been very lucky in hitting the right fashion note," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Consulting Group. "There is no consumer more fickle than the young one."

The recent strength is no guarantee that sales will continue to grow in the future, as young people's tastes could quickly change, Barnard added.

Teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters Inc. (AEOS) reported a 32.4 percent jump in same-store sales in February as customers bought the company's early spring merchandise.

The company raised its first-quarter earnings forecast to a range of 52 cents to 54 cents a share, from its previous forecast of 43 cents to 45 cents, based on the February growth.

Abercrombie and Fitch Co. (ANF) said same-store sales rose 19 percent. Children's Place Retail Stores Inc. reported a 24 percent rise in same-store sales.

But not all was rosy in the retail world last month. Winter storms and the higher gasoline prices held back sales of furniture and at other clothing stores.

Home furnishings retailer Pier 1 Imports Inc. (PIR) continued to struggle and blamed the cold weather as well as weak inventories for its 15.3 percent drop in same-store sales. The company warned that profit in the current quarter would fall short of expectations.

Clothing retailers such as Gap Inc. (GPS) and AnnTaylor Stores Corp. (ANN) also reported lower same-store sales, but the drops were less than analysts were expecting. Gap said same-store sales fell 3 percent, while AnnTaylor's were down 5.4 percent.