Retailers experienced a mild spring thaw last month, but hardly April showers of customers’ dollars.

This story first appeared in the May 8, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The shift of Easter into April and the first signs of spring weather helped most retailers trim the decreases in their comparable-store sales last month, and in some cases, even raise their margins and first-quarter guidance. But declines remained widespread and sometimes steep, especially for high-end retailers continuing to take the biggest bashing as consumers opt for value or a total break from spending.

Among the hardest hit, Saks Inc., Neiman Marcus Inc. and Nordstrom Inc. reported comp declines of 32, 24.6 and 10.8 percent, respectively, and upscale teen retailer Abercrombie & Fitch Co. saw its results for the month slide 22 percent.

The value message carried the day, good news for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which logged a better-than-expected 5.9 percent increase in same-store sales at its U.S. discount stores, adding up to a 2.9 percent gain for the March-April period. However, citing the need for more long-term thinking, Wal-Mart said it would discontinue reporting monthly sales results and in the future would provide comps results only on a quarterly basis. Earlier this year, the retailer ceased providing monthly sales guidance.

Target Corp. posted a 0.3 percent increase and said it expected first-quarter results to be higher than consensus estimates of 52 cents.

Gregg Steinhafel, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Target, said, “For the first quarter overall, retail segment financial performance was significantly better than expected, and the credit card segment performed in-line with our prior guidance.”

Value translated especially well for off-price retailers The TJX Cos. Inc. and Ross Stores Inc., which were up 3 and 6 percent, respectively, and BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc., up 5.5 percent. TJX ceo Carol Meyrowitz cited “extreme value” for her firm’s performance, which came against expectations of a decline for the month. Michael Balmuth, her counterpart at Ross Stores, pointed to “compelling bargains” as the company lifted earnings guidance for the first quarter. At Ross, dresses, children’s and shoes were the standout categories.

“The retail sales declines are finding a bottom, but it’s a bumpy bottom,” said Frank Badillo, senior economist at Retail Forward. “The Easter shift has caused some of the turbulence the last two months. In the coming months, there will probably be more bumpiness because of the effect of last year’s economic stimulus and the uncertain impact of this year’s stimulus.”

While Thursday’s same-store sales results were an improvement over recent months, Matthew Katz, managing director at Alix Partners, said it would be difficult for retailing to make a quick turnaround. He expects intense promotional pressures to continue for stores and noted that, with so many retailers looking to trim their store portfolios, “landlords are starting to push back.”

He expects smaller stores to bounce back first in a turnaround scenario, but conceded April’s results do hint at “some pent-up demand.”

In the department store segment, Katz said J.C. Penney Co. Inc.’s 6.6 percent decline, which was better than the 9 to 12 percent dip expected by the firm, suggests new consumers could be “crossing over” from hard-hit luxury stores and fast-fashion firms.

Coming off a 9.1 percent decline, Macy’s Inc. said its first-quarter losses would range from 19 to 21 cents a share, excluding restructuring charges. The projected deficit is better than its previous expectations and ahead of the 27-cent loss Wall Street had penciled in.

Kohl’s Corp. saw its comps decline 6.2 percent during the month but lifted first-quarter earnings per share guidance to between 43 and 44 cents a share from its earlier view of 27 to 34 cents. Kevin Mansell, president and ceo, said gross margin for the quarter was “stronger than planned and our expenses remained well-controlled.”

Dillard’s Inc., The Bon-Ton Stores Inc. and Stage Stores registered declines of 6, 5.1 and 1.5 percent, respectively. Stage singled out strong performances in both dresses and men’s wear.

On the specialty side, Aéropostale Inc. set the pace with its 20 percent comp jump, dethroning recent standout The Buckle Inc., which boasted an impressive 18.2 percent increase.

“Aéropostale was surprisingly fantastic,” said Majestic Research retail analyst Chandi Neubauer. “They are priced to sell. It was just a home run.”

Women’s retailer Cato Corp. impressed with an 11 percent comp increase, but Hot Topic Inc. recorded a 3.1 percent increase, below analysts’ estimates of a 7 percent rise. “It was ‘Twilight’ all along,” said Neubauer, who explained Wal-Mart’s launch of its own “Twilight” merchandise accounted for some of Hot Topic’s deceleration.

Shares of the rock-inspired retailer lost 19.6 percent of their value Thursday, closing at $9.94, but even retailers with better-than-expected results didn’t fare well on Wall Street.

The S&P Retail Index fell 1.3 percent to 334.21, steeper than the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s 1.2 percent dip to 8,409.85 but better than the Nasdaq Composite’s 2.4 percent pullback to 1,716.24. Despite the slight improvement in retail numbers and a decline in the number of first-time unemployment claims reported Thursday, the markets were weighed down by weakness in technology stocks as well as concerns over a poorly received auction of government bonds and word from the Federal Reserve Board that consumer borrowing fell at an annual rate of 5.2 percent in March, its worst performance since December 1990. (For more on stocks, see page 13.)

Comps fell 5 percent at American Eagle Outfitters Inc., which, according to Neubauer, signaled “definite progress” following the retailer’s struggle with its assortment, particularly on the women’s side. American Eagle’s men’s and women’s businesses were both down in the midsingle digits, the company said.

Neubauer was less optimistic about Abercrombie, which posted a 17 percent decrease in comps at its namesake chain, a 26 percent decline at Hollister Co. and a 30 percent decrease at Ruehl. “They do have a really strong brand, but now it’s really stagnant. It should be the Ralph Lauren of the teen market, but it’s not.”

Ruehl, Abercrombie’s post-college concept, has not posted consistently positive comps since 2006, Neubauer noted. “If it didn’t work in a superhot economy where everyone was punch-drunk with shopping, it’s probably not going to work now,” she said.

Citigroup retail analyst Kimberly Greenberger agreed, adding if Ruehl does not improve by the second half, the company should “consider shutting them down.”

In order for Abercrombie to improve across all brands, Greenberger said, the retailer should increase and deepen its promotions. She said the company has been marking down 30 to 40 percent of the merchandise at selected A&F and Hollister stores, but, in the interest of brand protection, hasn’t advertised the discounts.

On the other hand, she said, Gap Inc., down 4 percent for the month, has employed “proactive promotions” at all of its brands. Old Navy North America comped ahead 1 percent, while Gap North America and Banana Republic stores and the international unit were down 10, 8 and 2 percent for the month.

Limited Brands Inc. checked in with a 6 percent decline and an 8 percent dip at Victoria’s Secret. The results were offset by a 1 percent comp rise at Bath & Body Works, which was anchored by a surge in sales of antibacterial products, which coincided with the first swine flu headlines. According to Greenberger, the timing was “fortuitous” since the antibacterial product promotions were preplanned.

Elsewhere, American Apparel Inc. finished the month off 7 percent, while skate and surf-inspired Zumiez Inc. said it now expected a smaller first-quarter loss after reporting a better-than-expected 13.8 percent decline in April comps. Monthly sales at The Wet Seal Inc. were down 2.2 percent, with the flagship division’s 4 percent decline offset by a 6 percent increase at Arden B.

While April was a month of “expected improvement,” Citigroup’s Greenberger said she anticipates a second-quarter slowdown.

“May will be the best month. It could be helped by good weather,” she said, but it would be a “risk” to anticipate this June will be as strong as last year.

Consumers benefited from stimulus checks last summer. As for this year, she said, “I think around September and October, we will see improvement again.”