U.S. retailers are scheduled to report March sales today, and all indicators point to robust gains last month.
Indeed, the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi index, which tracks 85 retailers, found that sales at stores open at least a year rose about 7% in March, as consumers snapped up Easter candy and spring clothes, furniture and other home goods, at discount and specialty chains. That beat the 3.9% increase in March 1998. Sales rose 7.6% in February.
Demand for Easter-related goods boosted the month's sales about 2 percentage points, as the holiday was a week earlier than last year. Retailers also benefited from the continued strength of the U.S. economy, as low unemployment, rising wages and a robust housing market spurred consumers to spend, analysts said.
"All the leading economic indicators continue to point to a healthy economy," said Mark Larson, national director of the retail practice at consulting firm KPMG.
Discount chains are expected to report some of the highest sales gains because they offer a wide selection of low-price, brand-name products. Wal-Mart Stores, the world's largest retailer, is expected to report a 10% sales jump, and Kmart Corp. is forecast to have an 8% gain.
Specialty clothing chains, such as Gap Inc., are expected to post the highest sales growth. But department stores like Sears and J.C. Penney probably didn't fare as well. Consumers more frequently are bypassing department stores for the higher levels of customer service at specialty chains and the lower prices at discounters.
Jobless Claims: The Labor Department reports weekly jobless claims today. Analysts expect applications for state unemployment benefits in the week ended April 3 to stay below 300,000 for the 10th straight week, the longest such stretch since an 18-month run that ended in December 1973.
"If we stay at this rate or go lower, I would say the unemployment rate could even drop further," Mark Vitner, an economist for First Union Capital Management Group, told Bloomberg News.
The U.S. unemployment rate fell to a 4.2% annual rate in March, the lowest in 29 years.
Feinstein Speaks: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) addresses "Challenges Ahead for the California Economy" at a luncheon meeting of Town Hall of Los Angeles.