By and  on March 5, 2009

The trend in same-store sales thawed slightly last month, but upper-end retailers didn’t feel the warmth.

Retailers on Thursday generally reported lower comparable-store sales for February, but decreases moderated slightly from the levels of recent months and were often better than the stores and analysts had expected. However, the results, anchored by a strong performance by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., were kinder to discounters and off-price stores than they were to department and specialty ones.

And luxury retailers Saks Inc., Neiman Marcus Inc. and Nordstrom Inc., as well as teen retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, remained mired in double-digit declines.

The comp results did little for the stock market as Wall Street continued to plumb historic lows, although concerns about the solvency of General Motors and the vulnerability of Citigroup and other U.S. banks moved the markets far more than the retail sales results. The S&P Retail Index gave back Wednesday’s gains, dropping 3.6 percent Thursday to 232.89, but fared better than the Dow Jones Industrial Average, below 6,600 after a 4.1 percent drop, and the S&P 500, back below 700 after declining 4.3 percent.

Noting lower gas prices freed up money for shopping, Wal-Mart again set the pace for monthly advances with a 5.1 percent leap in comps, excluding fuel, and a 5 percent comp gain in Wal-Mart’s U.S. stores.

“Although Wal-Mart may have been the poster child of February’s relatively better-than-expected industry sales performance, there was a slightly broader industry improvement for the month,” said Michael Niemira, chief economist and director of research at the International Council of Shopping Centers. “Moreover, the last four months show an increasingly less negative performance for the industry, which is an encouraging sign and one that ultimately will form a foundation for stronger sales performance later in the year.”

Citigroup broadlines analyst Deborah Weinswig agreed. “The big takeaway from today is that it almost seems like we’re seeing a stabilization or an acceleration,” she said, pointing out that November might have been when retailers hit bottom. “I feel very encouraged coming off of this month.”

Either way, Weinswig said she saw an uptick in home merchandise sales and in private label, which “continued to outpace the growth of national brands,” mainly because consumers get “better value for their money.”

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