NEW YORK – The nation's retailers rebounded in January from their disappointing holiday season as shoppers redeemed gift cards to buy winter and spring merchandise. The arrival of frigid temperatures in much of the country helped clear out what was left of cold weather items.
As retailers reported their better-than-expected sales Thursday, winners included Limited Brands Inc., Nordstrom Inc., and Federated Department Stores Inc. (FED). Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) beat Wall Street estimates, though its monthly gain was modest. Even Gap Inc. (GPS), which has long struggled with disappointing sales, beat analysts' expectations, though its sales languished at its namesake chain.
Among the losers were Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (ANF), AnnTaylor Stores Corp. and Chico's FAS Inc.
"Across the board, the numbers are decent," said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics LLC, a research company in Swampscott, Mass. The one area of weakness was women's apparel stores, which he believes were hurt by the weather. Winter weather came too late, he said.
Thomson Financial's sales tally of 55 retailers rose 3.9 percent in January, beating the 3.1 percent estimate. The tally is based on same-store sales, or sales at stores opened at least a year, which are the industry standard for measuring a retailer's health.
The solid performance in January was soothing as it follows a largely disappointing November-December period, which averaged a modest 2.9 percent same-store sales gain, according to Thomson Financial. The sales reports also provided some encouraging news about fourth-quarter earnings, as many stores at least backed their profit forecasts. The retail fiscal year ends in late January, so companies will be reporting their fourth-quarter results later this month.
While January is the least important month of the retail calendar, its significance has grown over the past five years because of the impact of gift cards. Retailers don't include gift card sales in their monthly tallies until the cards are redeemed, and the bulk of cards given for the holidays are used in January.
The delayed arrival of winter weather had a mixed impact on sales. It helped stores that sell snow blowers and shovels or that still had plenty of heavy boots and coats to clear out, but hurt those that were heavily stocked with spring merchandise.
Merchants also benefited from a steady job market, which helped send consumer confidence slightly higher last month. The Labor Department reported Thursday that the number of newly laid off workers filing for unemployment benefits edged up last week but the levels still reflected a healthy labor market. The Labor Department reported that 311,000 newly jobless workers applied for benefits last week, an increase of 3,000 from the previous week.
Still, stores do face challenges ahead as the housing market remains soft and consumers face the possibility that job growth may be sluggish. Last week, the government reported that employers slowed hiring in January, pushing the unemployment rate to a four-month high. What's more alarming is that shoppers may be on the verge of tapping out — a government report issued last week said Americans' personal saving rate dipped into negative territory in 2006 as consumers deplete their saving or increase their borrowing to finance their spending.
"I believe that consumers are still feeling confident about buying, but I think it is a measured confidence," said Janet Hoffman, managing partner of the North American retail division of Accenture. "If people are not saving, they are not going to be ready to buy that next house. There is so much economic stimulation when they buy that next house," she said.
Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, had a modest 2.2 percent rise in same-store sales, beating the 1.8 percent estimate from Wall Street analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial. The company said lower temperatures throughout the United States drove sales of cold weather related items.
Rival Target Corp. (TGT) had a 5.1 percent gain in same-store sales, above the 4.6 percent estimate.
Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST) reported a same-store sales gain of 2 percent, below the 3 percent forecast. Costco blamed the shortfall on a quirk in the calendar: There was one less day during the five-week reporting period due to the timing of New Year's. The shift negatively affected same-store sales by about 3 percent, according to Costco.
Federated had an 8.6 percent gain in same-store sales, well above the 4.6 percent analysts predicted. The same-store results include only the Macy's and Bloomingdale's stores that existed before September, when the company transformed most of the former May Department Stores Co. branches to Macy's units.
J.C. Penney Co. (JCP) had a 3.6 percent gain in same-store sales at its department store business, a bit above the 3.5 percent estimate.
Saks Inc. reported a 11.4 percent gain in same-store sales, beating the 7.0 percent estimate. Nordstrom had an 11.1 percent gain in same-store sales, beating the 5.9 percent estimate.
Gap, whose CEO resigned last month amid a string of disappointing quarters, announced that same-store sales were unchanged from the year ago, much better than the Wall Street estimate for a 7.7 percent drop. The business was helped by strong sales at its Banana Republic stores, and the retailer boosted its earnings outlook.
Meanwhile, the retailer continued to shake up its management, announcing Thursday that the head designer for Gap North America was leaving.
Limited had an 11 percent same-store sales gain, beating the 7.8 percent forecast.
AnnTaylor suffered a 10.2 percent same-store sales decline, worse than the 5.4 percent expected.
Chico's said same-store sales fell 3.5 percent, worse than the 1.5 percent analysts expected.
Teen retailer Abercrombie & Fitch Co. had a 6 percent same-store sales decline; analysts projected a 1.9 percent decrease.
On Wednesday, American Eagle Outfitters Inc. (AEOS) reported a 17 percent gain in same-store sales, above the 10.9 percent estimate from analysts.