Holiday’s positive momentum is expected to have carried into January for retailers reporting comparable-store sales on Thursday, but analysts don’t expect the results to move the needle much for companies’ fourth-quarter projections.

This story first appeared in the February 3, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

However, with the quarter that included a somewhat resurgent holiday now in the rear-view mirror, retail experts are concerned that, without either the imperative of gift buying or an especially compelling merchandise assortment, the first quarter could present difficulties for many stores.

“January is the least important month of the year, at only about 6 percent of annual sales, and only about 15 to 20 percent of the fourth quarter,” said FBR Capital Markets retail analyst Adrienne Tennant. “It is also mostly a ‘backward-looking’ month, meaning it is mostly end-of-season clearance, and the early reads on spring transition are usually not highly significant in terms of sales.”

Margins, however, should receive a boost as “clearance product was significantly less in quantity and discounts were less deep than last year,” she said, adding the first two weeks of the month were likely the strongest.

A survey conducted by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs backed this view, showing sales for the week ended Jan. 30 were up 0.4 percent over those of the corresponding week in 2009, versus increases of 1.7 percent, 2.6 percent and 1.9 percent in the first, second and third weeks, respectively.

“Overall, retailers experienced a month of ups and downs in January but the stronger early-month performance helped to lift the monthly sales performance in what is traditionally a very low-volume month dominated by clearance activity,” said Michael Niemira, ICSC director of research and chief economist. “As such, sales for the month ended soft.

“ICSC research expects monthly sales will increase by about 1 percent for January — considerably softer, however, than the stellar 3.6 percent year-over-year pace in December,” he wrote.

Tighter holiday inventories and a “strong sector showing in December” helped drive January sales, according to Susquehanna Financial Group retail analyst Thomas Filandro, who said the depth of discounting needed to drive units was “well below prior-year levels,” supporting growth in average unit retail and improved unit profitability, albeit versus a dismal year-ago month.

Filandro predicted the specialty sector’s comps should turn positive for the second month in a row, up 1 to 3 percent, versus a decline of 14.6 percent a year earlier.

Improving gift card sales and cold weather also likely contributed to January’s lift, said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics Inc.

Still, according to Jennifer Black, president of Jennifer Black & Associates, economic challenges such as high unemployment, tight credit markets and the housing crisis continue to “weigh on the minds of the consumer.”

As a result, she noted, consumers are still choosing to shop at value-priced retailers, adding that “today’s consumer psyche has become much more focused on finding merchandise that conveys something that is ‘special’ and not just basic in nature, and we believe it is all about innovation.”

She said the consumer is “all about the fashion,” and that when they do purchase, they buy items that “provide them with a lot of versatility and allow them to mix and match.”

But Black wasn’t overly optimistic about the environment going into the first quarter because “the lack of new trends does not bode well for the spring season.”

Wedbush Morgan Securities retail analyst Betty Chen agreed, cautioning investors that “consumer spending could remain subdued during the first quarter given the lack of spending catalysts.”

Not only is there a dearth of shopping events moving ahead, but it will be an uphill slog as same-store sales comparisons begin to get more difficult.

According to Stifel Nicolaus retail analyst Richard Jaffe, retailers will need to grow the top line in 2010 and try to find a way to lure the consumer back into stores after they “splurged” during holiday.

“The first quarter remains a cause for concern,” he said on a conference call Tuesday. “The consumer will ratchet back during spring.”

Plain and simple, the consumer continues to be in “save mode,” he said, as the “uncertainty of the economy and the greater certainty of the consumer’s frugality” has become a “cautionary note.”

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