UPDATE 2-Walgreen March sales rise, helped by early Easter
* Walgreen's March same-store sales up 2.3 pct
* Pharmacy same-store sales up 2.4 pct
* Front-end same-store sales up 2.2 pct
* Shares gain 3 cents in morning trading (Adds details on Easter and rivals, analyst comments, stock activity, byline)
By Jessica Wohl
CHICAGO, April 5 (Reuters) - Walgreen Co's (WAG.N) sales at drugstores open at least a year rose 2.3 percent in March, helped by an early Easter holiday that was also expected to boost the wider retail sector.
The largest U.S. drugstore chain had predicted a boost from Easter falling on April 4, eight days earlier than in 2009, as shoppers bought candy and other items. An extra weekday helped sales of prescription medications, which have generally been weak due to a mild cold and flu season.
The increase -- Walgreen's biggest since November -- was slightly smaller than the 2.4 percent rise two analysts had anticipated, according to Thomson Reuters data.
Walgreen's shares gained about 3 cents to $37.78 in morning trading.
The report also helped to confirm an optimistic view of the wider retail sector's performance in March as shoppers seemed to be more confident about the economy and treated themselves ahead of the holiday.
Top store chains from Target (TGT.N) to J.C. Penney (JCP.N) are expected to report monthly sales increases later this week and retail shares tracked by the Standard & Poor's Retail index .RLX rose 1 percent on Monday, ahead of the wider market.
U.S. consumers made more impulse purchases of snacks, used fewer coupons and intended to buy more new clothing and shoes in March, according to a Consumer Edge Research report based on an online survey of about 2,500 people.
However, "on an absolute basis, consumers are still indicating high levels of frugality" and higher gasoline prices weighed on spending in March versus February, the firm said.
Analysts, on average, have forecast a 5.9 percent jump in March same-store sales for 28 retailers that report monthly sales, according to Thomson Reuters data. In March 2009, same-store sales at those chains fell 5 percent.
EASTER, EXTRA WEEKDAY HELPED
Walgreen's total March sales rose 6.4 percent to $5.82 billion. The company plans to give investors a combined March/April sales report next month to show a clearer picture of how it fared, since the timing of Easter helped in March.
Comparable pharmacy sales rose 2.4 percent. Those sales got a 1.7 percentage point boost from calendar day shifts. March 2010 had one more Wednesday and one less Sunday than March 2009, and people tend to fill more prescriptions on weekdays than on weekends. Prescription sales were also helped by patients filling more 90-day prescriptions, which count as three 30-day prescriptions in the month that they are filled.
Same-store sales of general merchandise rose 2.2 percent, and were supported by about 2.1 percentage points due to an earlier Easter, Walgreen said.
Rite Aid Corp (RAD.N), the No. 3 U.S. drugstore, got a smaller Easter lift as its March period ended on March 27, eight days before the holiday. Its March same-store sales slipped 0.1 percent and same-store sales of general merchandise rose 1.8 percent. CVS Caremark Corp (CVS.N), the other major player in the industry, does not release monthly sales tallies.
As of March 31, Walgreen operated 7,225 drugstores, 489 more than a year earlier.
Walgreen's 2.3 percent same-store sales increase in March was the best performance since a 3.9 percent jump in November. In the fiscal second quarter that ended on Feb. 28, Walgreen's same-store sales were off 0.2 percent. Same-store sales of general merchandise fell 1.6 percent during that quarter, while same-store prescription sales rose 0.6 percent. [ID:nN23160924] (Reporting by Jessica Wohl, editing by Gerald E. McCormick and Maureen Bavdek)