By  on March 4, 2005

NEW YORK — Same-store sales results produced a February surprise as stronger than expected numbers set the bar for the rest of 2005.

Successful spring transitional merchandise, leftover gift card usage and an eye on full-priced selling put Kohl’s Corp., Dillard’s Inc., Wet Seal Inc., Saks Fifth Avenue Enterprises, New York & Co. Inc., Aeropostale Inc. and Talbots Inc. among the winners. Their performance more than measured up despite stormy weather in the Northeast, California and other parts of the country, and tough comparisons with February 2004, when the return to high fashion was just beginning.

Wal-Mart beat its own estimates with a 4.1 percent advance in its discount stores, the company’s biggest increase in nine months. And Target Corp., with a 9 percent February comp advance, said on a recorded call that women’s apparel was among the strongest merchandise categories in the month. The company forecast March comps to be up 6 to 8 percent and, like many other retailers, said results in the month are likely to benefit from this year’s earlier Easter.

“Compelling fashion trends, coupled with a change in consumer cash flows [a decline in onetime gains from home refinancing and tax rebates], have helped to fuel a shift of consumer spending from home fashion and hard lines merchandise to more moderately priced apparel,” Richard Jaffe, an analyst at Legg Mason Wood Walker, wrote in a research report Thursday.

Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and Nordstrom Inc. also posted strong results last month, gaining 19 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

“I’m feeling positive momentum. I don’t think it’s a one-off,” said Janet Hoffman, a partner in Accenture Ltd.’s retail practice. “If we look back over the last six to 12 months, we’ve seen incremental positive sales and now we’re really starting to see some momentum….The economic indicators would tell you that we’re in a stable period. Employment levels are better, and so consumers are out and spending.”

Of the 50 retailers tracked by WWD, 39 had positive February same-store sales — defined as sales at stores open at least a year — while 11 posted negative comps. The specialty retail sector had the biggest aggregate monthly advance, up 6.9 percent, while mass merchants turned in a 4.3 percent overall increase and the department store group had a 3 percent gain.

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