By and  on March 3, 2006

NEW YORK — Warm weather in January made retail sales hot, but the snow and cold of February created a chill in stores.

The shortest month of the year brought retailers some of the weakest same-store sales gains of the last 12 months. The month's average gain of 3.2 percent was the lowest in nine months, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. Still, February, with a record mid-month blizzard in parts of the Northeast that iced spring apparel sales, wasn't a complete whiteout, given that retailers faced tough year-over-year sales comparisons.

Mass merchant Target Corp. posted a 3.6 percent rise in February comps, while rival Wal-Mart Stores Inc. had a 2.9 percent increase. Both were ahead of expectations and up against respective 9 percent and 4.1 percent comps from February 2005.

However, Gap Inc.'s consolidated 11 percent decline in February same-store sales — it tracks sales at stores open at least a year — came in much weaker than projections, which were for a 5.9 percent decrease. And Abercrombie & Fitch Co. said comps were up 5 percent, missing estimates of a 13.6 percent rise.

Consumers who shopped winter clearance sales and picked up early spring goods in January probably felt less compelled to shop in February, said Mark Rein, senior manager for consulting firm Capgemini's global retail practice.

Spending also may have been affected by higher home heating bills, and consumer confidence was weaker in the month.

Moderate department store chains Kohl's Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. were other winners in February with comps ahead of analysts' projections. Kohl's, which reported a 3.4 percent rise in February comps, and J.C. Penney with a 2.3 percent increase, were up against 6.1 percent and 5.9 percent same-store sales gains from last year, respectively.

Rein said the two chains benefited in February because there is a general dearth of fashion newness that would typically drive shoppers to more fashion-forward retailers.

"I'm not seeing any big new fashion trend for people to go spending money on," he said. "I'm just seeing extensions of current trends in product. I'm not seeing a new color emerge as a have-to-have color. When you're in a kind of basics mode, [department stores] can manage that really well. If there's nothing out there that's driving [spending elsewhere], they can put their operations to work."

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