Strong retail sales raise holiday hopes

CHICAGO Thu Oct 8, 2009 11:42am EDT

1 of 3. A shopper walks past a store in Boston, Massachusetts in this file photo taken on October 1, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi/Files

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. retailers gave investors an early Christmas present, posting their first monthly sales increase in more than a year and suggesting that wounded consumers might begin to heal in time for the crucial holiday season.

Store chains that included Macy's Inc, Abercrombie & Fitch and Kohl's Corp surprised Wall Street on Thursday with better-than-expected September sales.

The Standard & Poor's Retail Index rose 1.6 percent, with shares of Macy's up 2.9 percent and Abercrombie rising 6 percent.

Based on 30 retailers, sales at stores open at least a year climbed 0.6 percent, compared with expectations for a 1.1 percent decline, according to Thomson Reuters data. Nearly 80 percent of the companies beat expectations.

The last time sales rose was in August 2008, when retailers notched a 0.2 percent gain. That was just before a financial collapse in September constricted credit worldwide and sent jobless rates climbing.

Retail experts cautioned that the sales results did not yet presage a consumer-driven recovery to the U.S. economy.

"You need to see sales coming through, margins holding and overall profit rising," said Michael Niemira, chief economist of the International Council of Shopping Centers. "That overall story needs to play out for retail recovery to be solid."

The ICSC said October same-store sales should be about flat with a year earlier, when retailers averaged a 4.1 percent drop, according to Thomson Reuters data.

One factor in the higher September sales was an easier comparison with previous results. Same-store sales fell 0.9 percent in September 2008, according to Thomson Reuters data.

"We only get better or stronger from here, given the weak comparisons with a year ago," Niemira said.

This year's later Labor Day holiday pushed a good chunk of sales from August into September, but analysts had wondered if rising unemployment would weigh more heavily on spending.

On Thursday, a Labor Department report showed new U.S. jobless claims hit a nine-month low, suggesting the employment market was healing despite a September setback.

BACK-TO-SCHOOL, LATE LABOR DAY HELP SALES

Sales of clothing for the back-to-school season fueled many retailers' performances, especially in the early part of the month.

Several chains raised their profit forecasts for the current quarter, although Target Corp said it still had a cautious view of its fiscal fourth quarter, which includes the holiday season.

Holiday spending could be further constrained by shoppers' aversion to debt. Total U.S. consumer credit posted a deeper-than-expected drop in August, suggesting a tendency to cut debt rather than spend.

Many retailers continued to post declines in sales at stores open at least a year, but the drops were more moderate than analysts had forecast.

"I think the consumer is dipping their toe back into the discretionary waters right now, but just their toe," said Retail Metrics President Ken Perkins.

At Macy's, sales fell 2.3 percent, half as much as analysts anticipated. Upscale rival Nordstrom Inc's sales fell 2.4 percent, while analysts expected a 6 percent drop.

Teen apparel retailer Abercrombie saw same-store sales drop 18 percent, but that was better than the 21 percent decline predicted by analysts.

TJX Cos Inc, Kohl's, Limited Brands Inc and Children's Place were among the retailers that posted same-store sales increases.

COOLER TEMPERATURES HELP

Aeropostale Inc, American Eagle Outfitters Inc, Gymboree Corp and others raised their quarterly profit forecasts. Still, not all of the gains are coming from stronger sales. Gymboree's optimism stemmed mainly from inventory control and taking fewer markdowns.

Gap Inc's sales fell more than anticipated, but its shares edged up 0.3 percent after the company said margins came in significantly above last year.

TJX, whose message of value has made it one of the best performers in the downturn, saw even more shoppers visit its stores in September. Chief Executive Officer Carol Meyrowitz said seasonably cool temperatures in parts of the United States probably drove consumers to shop for fall merchandise.

One of the few retailers to miss expectations was luxury chain Saks Inc. It posted an 11.6 percent decline, with weakness persisting at its main Saks Fifth Avenue chain.

(Reporting by Jessica Wohl, Brad Dorfman and Ben Klayman in Chicago, Nicole Maestri in San Francisco, Aarthi Sivaraman in Seattle, Michele Gershberg in New York and Vidya Lakshmi in Bangalore; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

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