NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. retailers posted better-than-expected February same-store sales on Thursday due to a strong gain at discounter Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N), which said lower gasoline prices had loosened some household budgets.
While several apparel and department store and luxury chains posted same-store sales declines, a handful, including TJX Cos (TJX.N), Kohl's Corp (KSS.N) and Ross Stores (ROST.O), fared better than weak forecasts, as they appealed to shoppers with new fashions and attractive prices.
However, analysts cautioned that February did not mark a turnaround for retailers. U.S. store chains will need to show consistent improvement in the coming months for expectations to change, they said.
"We would want to see several more months along this line to come out and say we've made a turn here," said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics.
Shares of Wal-Mart, which also raised its annual dividend by 15 percent on Thursday, rose 2.7 percent. The wider Standard & Poor's Retail Index .RLX fell 3.6 percent following a warning by General Motors Corp (GM.N) about potential bankruptcy that spooked the market as a whole.
Retailers posted a surprise 0.3 percent increase in overall February same-store sales, against Wall Street expectations for a 1.2 percent drop, according to Thomson Reuters.
The increase was mostly due to Wal-Mart, which posted a greater-than-expected 5.1 rise in same-store sales. Excluding Wal-Mart, same-store sales fell 4.7 percent compared with expectations for a 4.8 percent drop.
A GAS BENEFIT
U.S. consumers have suffered in the past year from job losses, tighter credit and a weak housing market, which have forced them to save money by shopping at discount stores and sticking to basic purchases like food.
"We believe falling gas prices significantly boosted household disposable income in February and therefore allowed for both more trips and more spending toward discretionary categories," Wal-Mart Vice Chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright said.
Pointing to more sales pressure ahead, the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) forecast U.S. same-store sales to be flat to down 1 percent in March and said it expects April to be a little weaker than March.
Shoppers' frugality has helped discounters such as Wal-Mart and warehouse clubs like Costco and BJ's Wholesale Club BJ.N, whose results have outpaced other chains in the past year.
But even BJ's and Costco posted disappointing same-store sales on Wednesday compared with a year ago, when consumers flocked to their fuel stations to beat high gas prices.
For February, BJ's reported a 0.6 percent increase in same-store sales, while Costco posted a 3 percent decline, both below expectations, according to Thomson Reuters estimates.
SLIGHT SPRING BOOST
By contrast, discounters, apparel and department store chains continued to face some of the steepest sales declines, with apparel down 5.6 percent on a yearly basis and department store chains declining 9 percent.
But same-store sales at off-price chains Ross, with a 1 percent increase, and TJX, which was flat, were better than expected, while others, like apparel chains Gap Inc (GPS.N) and Limited Brands LTD.N, topped Wall Street forecasts.
Analysts said better weather and new spring merchandise in stores helped apparel sales a bit during February.
"Apparel is a low-ticket item, so if you get the fashion right, it is not something that you have to extend credit on too far to inspire people to shop," said Sarah Henry, a retail analyst with MFC Global Investment Management.
Teen clothing retailer Aeropostale (ARO.N) posted an 11 percent rise in same-store sales, which was better than expected, while rival Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF.N) faced a disappointing 30 percent decline.
Gap, with its Old Navy and Banana Republic stores, posted a smaller-than-expected 12 percent decline in same-store sales. Limited, with brands such as Victoria's Secret, narrowly beat expectations, with a 7 percent same-store sales decline.
Among department stores, upscale chains Saks Inc SKS.N and Nordstrom (JWN.N) suffered the most, posting disappointing drops of 26 percent and 15.4 percent, respectively.
"Most of those stores are exclusively discretionary spends," Perkins said. "They really have nothing in there that consumers absolutely must have."
While February is not seen as a key month of sales, given its place between post-holiday and early spring shopping periods, it could show how willing shoppers are to spend without the motivation of gift-giving.
Moreover, this year's Easter holiday falls in April, which could hurt some same-store sales for March. Ross Stores, for instance, called out the shift for an expected 4 percent to 6 percent same-store sales decline in March.
Judging by the month's results, analysts still expect overall sales in coming months to remain limp.
"The story we're most comfortable with is that we're still struggling as a retail industry here," ICSC chief economist Michael Niemira said. "February may ultimately tell some stories for the spring, but I think the performance will remain weak in the near term."
Children's Place (PLCE.O) shares were up 15 percent at $20.45, while Saks slid 5.7 percent to $2.00 and Abercrombie shares fell 13.2 percent to $18.17 shortly before the market close.
(Reporting by Aarthi Sivaraman; Additional reporting by Martinne Geller and Nicole Maestri in New York, Jessica Wohl in Chicago and Karen Jacobs in Atlanta; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Brian Moss, Richard Chang)