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January Comp Crux

The surprising strength of the month's comparable-store sales numbers produced a phenomenon not seen since the days of heated inflation and heavy spending.

DOUBLE-DIGIT DOOZY: The surprising strength of January’s comparable-store sales numbers — even given the smaller and still-shrinking size of the comp base — produced a phenomenon not seen since the days of heated inflation and heavy spending. Four of the five department stores reporting results for the month managed increases of more than 10 percent, with Kohl’s Corp. getting its act together to report an industry-leading 13.3 percent increase for the month as all merchandise categories except footwear generated double-digit increases.

BEATIFIC TREND: Two-thirds of the stores reporting beat the results expected by analysts, with Kohl’s margin over the 3.1 percent gain expected itself surpassing 10 percent. The 1.9 point “beat” margin overall — Thomson Reuters’ 5 percent median gain versus expectations of a 3.1 percent growth rate — was even higher when drugstores are excluded: up 5.8 percent versus an expected 3.5 percent jump. Like the International Council of Shopping Centers, Thomson Reuters lauded it as the best gain since September 2011, when comps on average grew 5.6 percent.

RELATED STORY: After Soft Holiday, Markdowns Drive January Comps >>

INCOMING TAX: The strong numbers posted by most stores last month might suggest that recent increases in payroll taxes didn’t affect spending. But several retailers made note of it, including Cato Corp., which posted the month’s weakest result — a 12 percent decrease. John Cato, the specialty store’s chief executive officer, cited “the timing of tax refunds and the effect of higher payroll taxes. We are unclear what portion of the sales lost due to tax refund delays will be recouped.” Target Corp. ceo Gregg Steinhafel touted a 3.1 percent increase for the month but pointed out, “Our guests continue to shop with discipline in the face of slow economic recovery and new pressures, including recent payroll tax increases.”