By and  on March 4, 2010

In A glimmer of hope that luxury spending is coming back, Neiman Marcus Inc. reported Wednesday that revenues rose 7.7 percent in February, led by performances at its stores in jewelry, women’s contemporary sportswear, shoes and men’s wear.

And MasterCard Advisors’ SpendingPulse said luxury sales (excluding jewelry) jumped 15.2 percent last month, following respective gains of 5.5 percent and 8.1 percent in December and January.

“Luxury was not expected to be that high a number,” said Kamalesh Rao, MasterCard Advisors’ SpendingPulse director of economic research. “The interesting thing about luxury is that it follows how well the stock market does.”

Neiman’s said for the four weeks ended Feb. 27, revenues reached $249 million compared with $232 million in the year-ago period. On a comparable basis, revenues rose 6.2 percent to $246 million from $232 million, and comparable sales at the specialty retail group, which includes Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, increased 5.1 percent.

At Neiman Marcus Direct, comparable sales rose 11.3 percent and were paced by women’s apparel, jewelry, children’s and men’s.

The Dallas-based retailer, which was among the hardest hit by the recession, also reported a cash balance of $530 million as of the end of the month, compared with $230 million a year ago, and no borrowings on its $600 million revolving credit loan. Earnings for the retailer’s second quarter will be released on Tuesday.

While Neiman’s seemed to be touting the results by reporting one day ahead of most major retail chains, which are expected to report same-store sales today, the total sales were still well behind those of two years ago, when the luxury retailer’s revenues hit $288 million for the month.

The nation’s other major luxury chain, Saks Inc., sharply narrowed its fourth-quarter loss through expense cuts, better margins and less price promoting. Saks chairman and chief executive officer Stephen I. Sadove said the retailer was “carefully moving from defense to offense.”

Rao noted that jewelry sales were up 9 percent for February after a 3.5 percent bump in January. While he acknowledged that luxury and jewelry sales in February faced easy comparisons, he was still surprised by the gains and will be “rethinking” forecasts for the luxury segment.

Not everything was rosy. Apparel sales still lagged during the month, falling 1.8 percent. The negative result was due to a 1.6 percent decline in women’s apparel sales. Men’s apparel and footwear, however, increased 5.7 percent and 2.2 percent,respectively.

Rao said he didn’t have a “good handle” on why women’s apparel sales were so weak, but weather contributed to the strong performances in men’s and footwear. MasterCard Advisors’ SpendingPulse is a service that estimates total national retail sales across all payment forms, including checks and cash.

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