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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sales at U.S. retailers declined less than expected in March in a sign that shoppers may be regaining confidence to open their wallets after more than a year of recession.
Of the U.S. retailers that reported March sales at stores open at least a year, more than half topped Wall Street estimates, and a handful even raised their quarterly earnings outlooks on Thursday.
According to Thomson Reuters' revenue-weighted same-store sales index, overall sales fell 1.8 percent, double the expected decline, due largely to weaker-than-expected sales growth at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Excluding Wal-Mart, sales fell 5 percent, slightly better than the 5.2 percent drop that analysts expected.
"The numbers are still soft, but given the deluge of negative news we have seen in the retail space over the last several months, it's got to be somewhat encouraging," said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics Inc. "It looks like there is a little bit of an uptick, some pent-up demand ... for some discretionary spending."
Yet Perkins cautioned against reading too much into the results. "It is difficult to foresee that really rallying and spiking in the near term," he said.
The International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) said it expected overall U.S. same-store sales to rise 1 to 2 percent in April and be flat to up 1 percent in May.
"We suspect that as this year progresses, it will get increasingly better," said Michael Niemira, ICSC's chief economist. "Especially toward the end of the year when you have very easy comparisons."
But for now, the March results pleased investors. The Standard & Poor's Retail Index climbed 4.6 percent, outpacing a 3.8 percent gain in the wider S&P 500 Index.
A notable exception was Wal-Mart, which reported a lower-than-expected 1.4 percent rise in March U.S. same-store sales, as a later Easter this year hurt sales at its namesake discount stores. Analysts on average were expecting a 3.2 percent rise, according to Thomson Reuters data.
At Wal-Mart's Sam's Club warehouse stores, discretionary categories such as jewelry, mattresses and furniture remained weak.
But Wal-Mart, whose shares fell as much as 5.6 percent, said it expected earnings to be at the high end of its forecast for the fiscal first quarter, which ends April 30.
Several other retailers, including JC Penney Co Inc, Ross Stores, Aeropostale Inc and Gymboree Corp raised their first-quarter earnings outlooks.
Even department stores, which had been one of the worst-performing retail sectors in recent months, surprised Wall Street, with JC Penney, Nordstrom Inc, Macy's Inc and Kohl's Corp posting declines that were smaller than expected.
Nordstrom, whose shares soared more than 17 percent, cited a special triple point event for holders of its credit cards, though that benefit was dulled by the impact of the later Easter holiday, which allowed many consumers to put off buying holiday-related goods like spring dresses and shoes.
Macy's, whose shares rose 15.1 percent, also posted results that were a shade better than analysts expected, but in line with its own expectations. Given that Easter falls in April this year, versus in March last year, Macy's said results from the two months should be viewed together to obtain a clearer picture of actual sales trends.
The later Easter is accompanied by later spring breaks from many schools and universities. This hurt retailers such as Aeropostale Inc, American Eagle Outfitters Inc and Wet Seal Inc, which cater to teens and young adults.
ICSC's Niemira said retailers who were hurt by the Easter shift in March should receive the "flip side" in April.
American Eagle's March sales fell 16 percent. Nonetheless, it raised the bottom end of its quarterly earnings forecast, since it did a better job of controlling discounts, and its shares jumped 11.75 percent.
Gap Inc shares rose 4.7 percent after the apparel retailer reported a smaller-than-expected 8 percent slide in March sales, citing a promotion for employees' "friends and family" and a strong response to Old Navy's spring products.
Old Navy, which sells value-priced clothing and accessories, has reported flat or negative same-store sales for roughly four years, and Credit Suisse analyst Paul Lejuez noted that a one-month improvement does not provide enough evidence that the better performance will be sustained. He extended the same caution to apparel retailers overall.
"As we look toward April we are cautious that a boost from the Easter shift will not be sustained through the month," Lejuez said in a research note. "While March may have benefited from some pent-up demand (and several retailers mentioned that weather helped), we do not believe the consumers' underlying spending habits are changing dramatically."
Additional reporting by Aarthi Sivaraman in New York, Nicole Maestri in San Francisco, Dhanya Skariachan in Bangalore and Jessica Wohl and Ben Klayman in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Matthew Lewis