Low expectations paid some high dividends for retailers reporting first-quarter results on Wednesday.

Beginning with Target, all seven of the apparel retailers checking in with quarterly numbers managed to beat analysts’ estimates, even though only three — Hot Topic Inc., Cato Corp. and Citi Trends Inc. — showed actual improvement on the bottom line.

What the results did signal, however, was that stores succeeded in their efforts to rein in expenses at least as quickly as consumers were limiting their own spending. Last quarter’s results and their guidance going forward suggest that stores believe the rapid declines in retail sales might at least be slowing.

“Broadly speaking, economic conditions appear to be stabilizing somewhat, and we believe this will prompt greater discretionary spending,” said Gregg Steinhafel, Target Corp.’s chairman, president and chief executive officer, on a conference call with analysts.

Even as Target continued to duke it out with activist investor William Ackman over the composition of its board and long-term strategies — with Ackman garnering the support of some investment advisers — the company said it was getting some of its retail mojo back.

Target’s retail business perked up modestly in the first quarter, but continued weakness in the credit card unit pushed earnings down 13.4 percent to $522 million, or 69 cents a diluted share, from $602 million, or 74 cents, a year ago. Even with the credit decline, results came in 10 cents ahead of analysts’ projections provided by Yahoo Finance of a 59 cent profit. Revenues for the three months ended May 2 inched up 0.2 percent to $14.83 billion.

Customers — or “guests,” in Target-speak — are still being creative with their dollars.

“Rather than buying complete outfits, guests are buying a single piece and accessories to go with it,” said Kathryn Tesija, executive vice president of merchandising.

And the same goes for other categories at the store as shoppers sweat out the recession. “Sales of microwave popcorn are very strong as guests re-create the theater experience at home,” said Tesija.

“Everybody was expecting a good quarter, but this was a really good quarter,” said David Strasser, an analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott.

He said Target was “caught flat-footed” when consumers began emphasizing value above all else last fall, but that the company had regained its positioning. The retailer has kept its “Expect More, Pay Less” tag line, but hammered home the “Pay Less” part of that message in its advertising since the financial crisis made clear that consumer attitudes were shifting dramatically.

“If the economy gets worse from here…they’ll be in much better shape than they were last year,” said Strasser.

The store also is working to keep its cheap-chic cred, and this month said it would have a limited-run collection from Anna Sui this fall as part of its Designer Collaborations program.

At Target’s 1,698 stores, earnings before interest and taxes inched up 0.3 percent to $962 million as sales rose 0.4 percent to $14.36 billion. Comparable-store sales dropped 3.7 percent as both the number of transactions and the average transaction amount fell.

However, in the credit card unit, EBIT dropped 67.3 percent to $65 million on a 5.6 percent decline in revenues to $472 million. Bad debt expense rose 63.5 percent to $296 million as credit card holders struggled to pay off their bills in the recession.

Investors gave the results the thumbs-up and traded shares of the stock up $1, or 2.4 percent, to $42.94 even as the S&P Retail Index declined 1.6 percent on the day to 322.47. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 fell 0.6 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively.

Further down the price chain, BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc. said first-quarter net income rose 41.6 percent to $24.4 million, or 45 cents a share, ahead of estimates, on a 0.3 percent increase in revenues to $2.31 billion.

Inventory and expense control helped AnnTaylor Stores Corp. log a smaller-than-expected first-quarter loss despite steep sales declines, but caution about the future and acknowledgement of an unexciting assortment in the recent past contributed to an 11 percent drop in its stock Wednesday.

The New York-based women’s apparel retailer reported a net loss of $2.3 million, or 4 cents a diluted share, in the three months ended May 2, 9 cents better than the 13 cent loss analysts expected, versus net income of $25.9 million, or 43 cents a share, in the year-ago period. Net sales dropped 27.9 percent to $426.7 million as comps declined 30.7 percent, with a 42.7 percent slide at Ann Taylor only partially offset by the 24.2 percent decline at the more value-oriented Loft chain.

Gross margin improved to 55.5 percent of sales versus 53.2 percent a year ago and 35.7 percent in the fourth quarter.

Kay Krill, president and ceo, said on a morning conference call that “internal factors” weighed down the Ann Taylor division, as did the difficult state of the market for women’s professional apparel.

Ann Taylor’s “product assortment was not compelling or relevant” to the consumer, she said, adding that, beginning this fall, the collection will have a “far more modern” point of view.

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