By  on April 8, 2005

NEW YORK — March came in like a lamb, but went out like a lion.

Unseasonably cold weather and higher gas prices worked against apparel retailers by keeping shoppers out of stores during the first three weeks of last month. Improved weather conditions arrived in the final week, but analysts said it wasn’t enough to offset the softer sales.

As a result, retailers said March was pretty much a washout. There were exceptions, though, as several of the specialty and teen retailers — notably Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Wet Seal Inc. and Bebe Stores Inc. — posted robust same-store sales of 21 percent, 30.6 percent and 36.3 percent, respectively.

But retailers such as the Neiman Marcus Group and Nordstrom Inc. showed the luxury channel had trouble staying the course. March comps — sales at stores open at least a year — were positive for those retailers, but were down from their usual midsingle-digit to double-digit advances. Both Neiman’s and Nordstrom, incidentally, were up against high, double-digit sales comparisons from last year.

Despite the mixed results, it’s important to remember that one month does not make a trend, said Chris Donnelly, a partner in Accenture Ltd.’s retail practice. “There were certainly more positive trends at the beginning of the year across all the companies, and here, you really see a lot more disparity in the results being produced. Some are doing well and some, not quite as well,” Donnelly explained. “We’ll need more than a month to see the trends.”

But citing in part the earlier Easter, some retailers are already forecasting April comps to be disappointing. First-quarter earnings guidance was revised slightly lower by discounter Wal-Mart Stores Inc., even while one of its main competitors, Target Corp., which posted an 8.2 percent rise in comps at its discount stores, now expects first-quarter earnings to meet or exceed its prior forecast.

In the department store space, notables included Dillard’s Inc. with an 8 percent decline in March comps, and Stage Stores with a 12.1 percent increase. Meanwhile, the divergence between Federated Department Stores, with a 3.4 percent comp increase, and May Department Stores, with a 10.8 percent drop, had analysts concerned. The two companies are planning to merge in a $17 billion deal announced in February.

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