Retailers Report Mostly Solid May Results; Wal-Mart Weak

U.S. apparel chains and department stores Thursday posted higher May same-store sales that largely trounced analyst forecasts, though No. 1 retailer Wal-Mart (WMT) warned high energy prices could slow growth.

Among those reporting top-notch results were women's clothing specialist AnnTaylor Stores (ANN), whose sales growth was twice what Wall Street had expected, and Bloomingdale's parent Federated Department Stores (FD), which said its strong May performance led it to raise its second-quarter sales forecast.

Still, the rise in gasoline prices is posing a threat to retailers that serve lower-income customers. The average price at the pump is up about 27 percent so far this year, according to the AAA's daily survey of more than 85,000 stations.

"The trend is reflecting the lower-income consumers not shopping," said Pacific Growth Equities analyst Christine Chen. "The higher-end consumers and the teens seem to have come out and shopped, though not at the rate they did in April."

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's biggest retailer, said sales at stores open at least a year rose 2.3 percent in May, at the low end of its earlier forecast, and noted that rising gas prices were starting to cut into customers' willingness to spend.

"Fuel prices continue to be a top concern for our customers," Wal-Mart's executive vice president and chief financial officer, Tom Schoewe, said in a statement.

The company gave a June forecast for sales growth of 1 percent to 3 percent.

"It bothers me when Wal-Mart guides below 2," said Marion Schultheis, a fund manager for J. & W. Seligman & Co. "It's a red flag for the consumer."

Three out of four U.S. consumers plan to cut back spending because of high gasoline prices, according to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation trade group.

Discount home goods retailer Dollar General Corp. (DG) posted lower first-quarter profit as its low-income customers grappled with steep energy costs and cut back on purchases of apparel and home decor items.

May sales were up 1.3 percent, beating forecasts but less than the same month a year ago.


Women's apparel companies such as business and casual clothing retailer AnnTaylor and Chico's FAS Inc. , known for its clothing for women over 35, posted sales results that beat forecasts by a wide margin.

AnnTaylor's May same-store sales were up 12 percent, while Chico's posted sales that were up 7.2 percent in May, higher than the 6.8 forecast.

"Chico's was awesome," Schultheis said. "They don't let anything go by -- if they have one bad month, they do what they need to do."

Limited Brands Inc. (LTD), which runs the Victoria's Secret, Express and Bath & Bodyworks chains, reported sales that rose 7 percent, higher than the analyst average forecast of 5.4 percent.

Gap Inc bucked the trend and posted another monthly sales decline as the company continued to struggle with poor traffic. Customers have defected to competitors, citing inconsistent fashions and quality at the company's namesake Gap stores. Sales dropped 6 percent in May, below analyst forecasts of 4.2 percent.

Teen clothing retailer American Eagle Outfitters Inc. beat Wall Street sales estimates of 8.6 percent growth with an 11 percent burst, but kept its second-quarter forecast intact.

Federated Department Stores Inc., which serves higher-income customers at its Macy's and Bloomingdale's stores, reported sales that soared 9.2 percent, beating expectations of 5 percent growth.

Kohl's Corp., which is geared more for mid-tier income shoppers, said May sales rose 3.1 percent, less than Wall Street's forecast of 4.5 percent growth.


In June, some retailers may look forward to a Father's Day burst, as kids buy presents and cards for their dads. Spending on the June 18 observance is expected to rise to $9 billion, from $8.2 billion last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Schultheis said she expects fuel prices to remain a problem for sales, but warned that Thursday's report on lower U.S. mortgage applications last week suggested that higher home prices are the next great obstacle.

"Wage gains and a fairly decent housing market have made the consumer feel OK," she said. "But I see housing turning from neutral to negative."

The Standard & Poor's retail index was up 1.3 percent in mid-morning trading, compared with the S&P 500 broad market index which was up 0.5 percent.

Wal-Mart shares were up 4 cents at $48.49, while Dollar General shares slipped 33 cents to $15.97.

AnnTaylor shares rose 90 cents to $39.36 and Chico's gained 58 cents to $30.56. Limited advanced 47 cents to $27.64 and Gap (GPS) inched up 3 cents to $18.24.

Federated gained 65 cents to $73.48, while Kohl's shares slipped 4 cents to $53.65.