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Early Comps Point Downward

NEW YORK — March comparable-store sales results got off to an inauspicious start Wednesday as war worries, economic troubles, cold temperatures, a late Easter and a lack of must-have items combined to keep consumers at home.<br><br>Retail...

NEW YORK — March comparable-store sales results got off to an inauspicious start Wednesday as war worries, economic troubles, cold temperatures, a late Easter and a lack of must-have items combined to keep consumers at home.

Retail executives and analysts said they are hoping April will supply a greatly needed pickup in sales, as the weather warms and people augment their wardrobes in time for Easter on April 20, three weeks later than a year ago.

The majority of U.S. retailers are expected to report their monthly sales results on Thursday.

Hurt by weak sales in the Northwest and Southwest, Nordstrom, based in Seattle, reported a 1.7 percent decrease in its comparable-store sales for March, in line with recently revised expectations. Top performing merchandise categories included cosmetics, accessories and women’s activewear, while women’s shoes and the designer and bridge segments of women’s apparel were flat for the month.

Jennifer Black, an analyst with Wells Fargo Securities, said in a research note, “Both the young adult and the Baby Boomer’s reluctance to spend money amidst an uncertain macroeconomic and geopolitical environment are impacting Nordstrom’s financial results.” While the teen sector has been less reluctant to buy, she noted that it constitutes only a small portion of Nordstrom’s overall business.

Even with a teen edge, business continues to be tough at American Eagle Outfitters, based in Warrendale, Pa., as its total March comps slid 9.3 percent and comps at the AE stores fell 8.5 percent.

The company said that, due to poorer than expected sales performance in February and March and continued margin pressure from the Bluenotes division, it expects first-quarter earnings to be in the range of 10 to 12 cents a share, compared with 17 cents earned in the first quarter last year. AE said it expects April consolidated comps to increase in the mid- to high-single digits.

City of Industry, Calif.-based Hot Topic, a teen specialty retailer that often boasts the strongest comps in its sector, hit a low note in March by reporting its comps decreased by 3.1 percent, versus a 1.2 percent increase last year.

Betsy McLaughlin, president and chief executive officer, said in a statement, “The shift of Easter this year to April, versus March last year, makes comparisons of the individual months difficult. As expected, comp sales were positive in four of the five weeks of March this year. Comp sales were only negative during the fourth week of March, which last year was the week leading up to Easter and the peak week of the quarter.”

Off-price retailer Factory 2-U Stores, based in San Diego, blamed the late Easter for its 15.3 percent decline in comps last month. Bill Fields, chairman and chief executive, said in a statement, “Comparable-store sales were significantly lower as a result of pre-Easter sales occurring in March last year, versus April this year.” He also noted lower in-store inventory levels contributed to the negative comp performance. All merchandise categories had negative comps, ranging from the low to the high teens.

Bucking the trend, Aeropostale, the New York-based specialty retailer, which focuses on younger teens, said its comps rose in March, but only by a fraction — 0.1 percent, versus a year-ago increase of 35.1 percent.

Analysts have pointed out that Aeropostale’s more value-oriented stance helps it continue to grow top-line sales despite the difficult selling environment.

Julian R. Geiger, chairman and ceo, said in a statement, “We were very pleased with our sales performance during the month, which came against a very difficult comparison to March of last year and the Easter calendar shift. We believe that our strong performance is indicative of a compelling merchandise assortment and growing brand acceptance.”