* What: February same-store sales seen down 1.3 pct
* When: March 4-5
* Feb may trump Jan but not a sign of turnaround
NEW YORK, March 3 (Reuters) - Major U.S. retailers are expected to post lower February same-store sales later this week, as shoppers remained stubbornly thrifty and a dire recession showed no signs of improving.
Though sales may be slightly better than in January, top retailers are still bracing for a stormy 2009. U.S. companies from Wal-Mart Stores Incto Macy's Inc are due to report their monthly sales data this week, with most issuing results on Thursday.
"We would not read much into an improvement" in February compared with January, said Retail Metrics President Ken Perkins.
"The macro headwinds that consumers and retailers are facing right now are so stiff that we feel there are still more negative comps to come as we progress through the first half of this year," he said.
Retailers are two months out of the 2008 holiday season, which turned into the worst in nearly four decades as sharp cutbacks in consumer spending scathed sales at most companies.
The Dow Jones Retail Indexhas tumbled about 28 percent in the past year.
Same-store sales fell 1.8 percent in January -- the second-weakest monthly performance since Thomson Reuters started tracking the data in 2000.
For February, analysts expect retailers to post a decline of 1.3 percent in same-store sales, according to Thomson Reuters. Excluding Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, same-store sales are expected to be down 5.1 percent.
Slightly better weather and new spring merchandise in stores may have helped sales a bit in February, analysts said. It was the warmest February since 2005, according to weather tracking firm Planalytics.
While February is usually not a key month given fewer days and its place between the post-holiday and early spring shopping periods, the month could show how willing shoppers are to spend even without the motivation of gift-giving.
CLOSE EYE ON INVENTORY
Department stores such as Macy's, and apparel retailers like Gap Incand Abercrombie & Fitch , likely suffered the deepest cutbacks in February, providing fresh evidence that consumers are buying only basics like food.
Apparel retailers are expected to post an 8.6 percent same-store sales decline, while department stores faced a 10.1 percent drop in what Saks IncChief Executive Steve Sadove recently called the most challenging downturn that the company has faced in its 84-year history.
As they hunker down, several retailers have kept a close eye on inventories, which Thomas Weisel Partners analyst Liz Dunn said was a good move.
"Conservative inventory planning is prudent, and the retailers we have heard from thus far have generally managed inventories to sales trends," Dunn said in a note.
Until the economy improves, retailers must keep a tight lid on inventory to avoid last-minute sales that could evaporate margins, analysts said. Saks, for instance, is targeting a 20 percent decrease in inventory for 2009.
But there is no sure-fire way to tell how shoppers will spend or when the economy will turn.
Last month, Wal-Mart scrapped its monthly sales forecasts, pointing to unpredictable consumer habits. Others like Macy's, J.C. Penneyand Kohl's Corp have warned that their troubles will dog them through 2009, while Target Corp said earnings in the first half of the year would be below year-earlier levels.
Kohl's, a mid-priced apparel and home goods retailer, expects February results to be better than the 6 to 8 percent decline it foresees in first-quarter same-store sales. March will match that range, while April will be at the "negative end," it said.
Macy's expects a same-store sales decline of 6 to 8 percent for the full year.
As consumers face mounting job losses, tighter credit and weak home values, hopes for the year are fast fading, Perkins said.
"When you look at today's landscape, it is very difficult to picture all that being settled and sorted out by the end of the year." (Reporting by Aarthi Sivaraman, editing by Matthew Lewis)
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