Big Retailers Post Robust Sales for May

Consumers shopped with renewed enthusiasm during May following a one-month break, giving many of the nation's biggest retailers solid sales gains.

Companies across retailing sectors reported upbeat results Thursday, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST), Limited Brands (LTD), Nordstrom Inc. (JWN), Federated Department Stores Inc. (FD) and Talbots Inc. (TLB).

The major exception was long-struggling Sears, Roebuck and Co. (S), which reported a larger-than-expected sales decline.

The overall strong performance was reassuring after consumers pulled back in April as gasoline and food prices were rising. Analysts said they saw no signs of inflation concerns in May's results.

"While there's been a worry about high gasoline prices, at this point it has not affected spending," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at The International Council of Shopping Centers (search).

Niemira's preliminary sales tally, based on 73 retailers, was up 5.7 percent, better than the 5 percent he anticipated. The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS tally is based on what the industry calls same-store sales, or sales at stores opened at least a year. Those sales are considered the best indicator of a retailer's health.

The upbeat results coincided with a report from the Labor Department (search), which announced that unemployment benefits fell last week by a seasonally adjusted 6,000 to 339,000. Claims reached a high last year of 444,000 in the middle of April and have slowly declined.

Analysts say the job market must continue to improve to keep consumers spending. A big worry has been with the low-income consumers who have been most vulnerable to rising gasoline prices and who still are struggling with a challenging job market, Niemira said.

Last month, Wal-Mart's chief executive and president Lee Scott expressed concerned about higher gasoline prices, but he expected the growth in employment and real income to lessen the impact.

The discounter's solid same-store gain in May of 5.9 percent — much better than the 5.0 percent analysts expected — indicates that consumers have coped with rising prices without reducing their spending. Total sales rose 12.8 percent for the month.

Costco reported a 16 percent increase in same-store sales in May. Analysts polled by Thomson First Call expected a 10.3 percent gain. Total sales rose 19 percent.

But Target Corp.'s (TGT) results were a bit disappointing. The company, whose results were pulled down by its Mervyn's division, posted a same-store sales increase of 4.6 percent, below the 5.1 percent Wall Street expected. Total sales were up 10.6 percent.

Many department stores and mall-based apparel stores had a strong showing, with company officials citing sales of full-price merchandise.

At the high end, Nordstrom Inc. reported a same-store sales increase of 9.4 percent, better than the 6.1 percent Wall Street expected. Total sales rose 11.7 percent.

Saks Inc. (SKS), which operates Saks Fifth Avenue stores as well as moderate-priced stores like Younkers and Carson Pirie Scott, reported a 9.4 percent gain in same-store sales, better than the 6.2 percent analysts anticipated. Total sales were up 10.6 percent.

Federated had a 2.9 percent increase in same-store sales. Analysts had expected sales to be unchanged from a year ago. Total sales were up 3.3 percent.

May Department Stores Co. (MAY) posted a 3.1 percent decline in same-store sales, better than the 1 percent decline Wall Street forecast. Total sales fell 2.7 percent.

J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (JCP) reported a same-store sales increase of 9.1 percent in its department store sector. Analysts expected 4.1 percent. Total sales were up 7.6 percent.

But Sears, which is trying to retool its stores to woo shoppers back, reported a 3.7 percent drop in same-store sales in May, worse than the 0.1 percent decline analysts expected. The company blamed the results in part to the "slackening in consumer demand across most categories."

Sears' total sales were down 4.7 percent.

Among mall-based apparel retailers, Limited Brands posted a same-store sales gain of 3 percent, higher than the 2.4 percent Wall Street estimate. Total sales rose 3.8 percent.

Gap Inc. (GPS) posted a 6 percent increase in same-store sales, above the 4.9 percent forecast. Total sales rose 7 percent.

AnnTaylor Stores Corp. (ANN) had a 9.9 percent increase in same-store sales, above the 4.5 percent analysts expected. Total sales were up 23.7 percent.

Talbots posted a 8.1 percent increase in same-store sales, much higher than the 2.3 percent Wall Street forecast. Total sales rose 10 percent.

In a statement, Arnold B. Zetcher, chairman, president and CEO, reported the retailer saw "robust regular-price selling throughout the month."

Selected same-store sales for May for other leading retailers:

-- Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF), same-store sales were up 1 percent; total sales increased 20 percent.

--  Kohl's Corp. (KSS), same-store sales were up 5.0 percent; total sales rose 20.2 percent.

-- Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. (PSUN), same-store sales rose 7.8 percent; total sales rose 18.5 percent.

-- TJX Cos. (TJX), same-store sales were up 5 percent; total sales rose 13 percent.