By  on March 7, 2013

The 2013 retail calendar got off to an uninspiring start following a mass exodus of retailers from monthly reporting and tepid results among those still participating in the ritual.

Stores generally bested analysts’ expectations but fell well short of their year-ago performances as wintry weather, delays in tax refunds, budgetary uncertainty in Washington and higher gas prices conspired to keep many consumers away from stores following the holiday season and a January dominated by clearance activity.

The results also represented a continuation of the plateau effect many stores are facing in the new year as they face off against robust numbers logged early in 2012.

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“Just about every retailer is going to be facing headwinds, and it adds up to a challenging picture for the first quarter,” said Rebecca Duval, vice president and analyst at BlueFin Research Partners in Boston. “Most stores had very strong comps in the first and second quarters last year, and you’ve got everything from less money in people’s paychecks and the delays in tax refunds to the weather breaking in the wrong direction to deal with now.”

Thomson Reuters analyst Jharonne Martis-Olivo noted that year-ago results “received a boost from warmer weather.”

Michael Niemira, vice president of research and chief economist at ICSC, said, “All things considered, the numbers aren’t all that bad, and I think one of the reasons is that we’re seeing improvement in both sales and prices in the housing market. That’s helping to propel the consumer forward and one reason to be optimistic.”

He said a strong jobs report from the Labor Department today would also help to bolster consumer confidence and spending.

With the end of the 2012-13 retail year, the last of the department store retailers — Nordstrom Inc., Macy’s Inc., Kohl’s Corp., Stage Stores Inc. and The Bon-Ton Stores Inc. — exited from monthly reporting, and Target Corp. joined retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. on the sidelines.

Gap Inc. opted to continue the practice, but its plan to report after the close of the equity markets was upended when a transcript of its monthly call was leaked earlier in the day, leading to a temporary halt in trading of its shares.

Despite the premature reportage, Gap excelled during the month with a 3 percent comparable-store sales increase overall. The 6 percent increase at Old Navy qualified as the strongest gain of the month, a distinction shared with Costco Wholesale Corp., with the exclusion of fuel, and American Apparel Inc., with the inclusion of online sales. The Gap division was up 2 percent while Banana Republic trended down 5 percent.

Taken together, and with an abbreviated sample, the Thomson Reuters Same-Store Sales Index was up 3.9 percent, excluding drugstores, better than the final 3.3 percent estimate for the month and the weakest performance since last May. The International Council of Shopping Centers pinpointed the chain-store sales gain, also excluding drugstores, at 4.2 percent, a point weaker than in January.

With the department stores and the biggest discounters now out of the comp mix, much of the heavy lifting fell to Gap and to the nation’s two largest off-price chains, The TJX Cos. Inc. and Ross Stores Inc. Ross was a double disappointment, both missing estimates and registering a rare decline, its 1 point drop qualifying as its worst result since a 2 percent drop in January 2009. Michael Balmuth, vice chairman and chief executive officer, projected a 1 to 2 percent decline in March and a 5 to 6 percent upward rebound in April, with Easter falling later than it did a year ago.

TJX fared better, moving up 1 percent, but both retailers felt a whiff of disappointment from Wall Street. Ross shares dropped $4.47, or 7.5 percent, to $55.23 while TJX’s slipped 32 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $44.62. The S&P Retailing Industry Group overall fell 1.42 points, or 0.2 percent, to 720.93 while the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 33.25 points, or 0.2 percent, to 14,329.49 after hitting an all-time high of 14,354.69 during midday trading.

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