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Retail sales rise slightly in March

Shoppers were held back by cold weather, economic strains and an earlier Easter, analysts say.

April 11, 2013|By Tiffany Hsu
  • Sales at stores open at least a year rose 1.5% in March, in line with expectations but much more muted than the 3.9% gain during the same month in 2012.
Sales at stores open at least a year rose 1.5% in March, in line with expectations… (Bethany Mollenkof, Los…)

Consumers shopping during a chilly March gave retail sales for the month a half-hearted push, with spending weighed down by the bitter weather, ongoing economic strains and an earlier Easter that shaved off a full selling day.

"The deck was stacked against both retailers and consumers alike," said Ken Perkins, who puts out sales data through Retail Metrics Inc.

Sales at stores open at least a year rose 1.5% in March, in line with expectations but much more muted than the 3.9% gain during the same month in 2012, according to Perkins. The "same-store" sales measure eliminates the effect of stores opening and closing during the year.

Given the circumstances, such as wintry weather and continued adjustment to higher payroll taxes, the numbers "surely could have been worse," Perkins said.

Retailers probably got a boost from rising home and stock prices, he said. And more affordable fuel at the pump coupled with a rosier employment outlook didn't hurt.

Consumer spending accounts for a large majority of economic activity in the country.

But the monthly same-store sales measure released Thursday doesn't offer a complete picture of industry performance because it involves a shrinking list of companies.

Many retailers, including beleaguered J.C. Penney Co., reveal only quarterly statistics. Some analysts say Friday's retail sales report from the Commerce Department will offer a more extensive look at how the industry fared in March.

Another retail sales gauge came from Thomson Reuters, which said the measure — including drugstores — got a 1.5% bump last month. But the boost was below Wall Street predictions of 1.8% and lagged behind the 2.9% surge recorded in March 2012.

At Gap Inc. in San Francisco, same-store sales slid 1% but came in higher than the 2.1% dip analysts had estimated.

Brands such as Ross Stores Inc., which according to RBC Capital Markets analyst Howard Tubin "skews to the Sunbelt region of the country," evaded the low temperatures on the East Coast.

The discounter's same-store sales were up 2% in March because of strength in its juniors and accessories department and demand from the West Coast. Its positive performance, however, was less inspiring than the 10% upswing reported in March 2012.

The same trends held at Limited Brands Inc., which owns names such as Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works and saw sales go up 3%. But Tubin, in a note to clients, wrote that "new and updated product continues to drive the business and this is a trend we believe will continue."

The company said it expects a similar sales increase in April.

The weather has steadily improved, bringing out Santa Monica resident Jessica Ross, 30, in early April.

The busy mother of three, who is adopting one more child, said she does most of her shopping online, spending up to $3,000 last month on toiletries, children's clothing, school supplies and more.

She ventured out last week with her son Valentin, 8, because it was spring break and he needed new shorts from Old Navy.

But with online incentives such as deep discounts, free shipping and next-day delivery, Ross said Internet shopping is her go-to — especially as malls become more crowded.

"It saves me gas and saves me time," she said of online retail. "It's a no-brainer. I don't go out to stores unless absolutely necessary."

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

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