Expectations for April comparable sales were extremely modest but, as the month turned out, a bit on the optimistic side.
Numbers for the month were expected to be constrained by the shift to an earlier Easter (April 5 versus April 20 a year ago); the lingering effects of the West Coast ports dispute and macroeconomic challenges like the anemic rise in first-quarter gross domestic product (0.2 percent) and the recent rise in gasoline prices.
But Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics, noted that April’s figures fell flat in a number of ways, with the mean result down and, for the fourth consecutive month, below analysts’ expectations. Without an expected and sizeable increase from Gap next Monday, a string of 67 consecutive months of increases, dating back to the days just after the Great Recession, will have come to an end.
“Consumers appear to be spending money on new cars, in restaurants, on data plans and on smartphones, but other areas of retailing are experiencing some challenges,” Perkins said.
In a nearly unprecedented display of minus signs, nearly all companies reporting weathered declines, including L Brands Inc., which saw its corporate comp fall 1 percent, with Victoria’s Secret flat and Bath & Body Works down 2 percent. Amie Preston, chief investor relations officer of the company, said that the Easter shift cost L Brands 5 points on its April comp.
That didn’t stop the retailer from raising its guidance for first-quarter profits to a range of 58 to 60 cents from the previous projection of between 50 and 55 cents. In part that could be attributed to a flat merchandise margin for the month and a decline in inventories of 7 percent a square foot.
Still to be incorporated in the mix for the month is Gap Inc., expected by Thomson Reuters to report a 7.2 percent drop. Gap now releases results for the final month of each quarter on the Monday after the traditional Thursday reporting day of the following month, but the results are considered unlikely to pull the comp sample into positive territory. Thomson Reuters put the decline for the month at 1.5 percent while Retail Metrics, working from a broader matrix, placed it at 0.3 percent.
Adrienne Yih, analyst at Janney Securities, advised investors, “Don’t put too much weight on a ‘noisy’ April” and recommended looking at March and April, or “Marpl,” together.
“We note that promotional cadence is roughly ‘flattish’ year-over-year” in the first quarter, she wrote, pointing out that she expected cautious guidance for the second quarter as merchandise margins are being supported by clean inventory positions.
“With the first quarter generally about 20 percent of sales and less than 20 percent of EPS, we focus on the big picture margin opportunity” in the second half, she said.
The swings in results from March into April tend to support the theory of a “noisy” month. Cato Corp. was expected to see a 4 percent increase in March comps but instead reported a 12 percent rise. For April, the forecast was for a 6 percent decline that instead came in at down 14 percent.
RetailNext, which reports retail trends based on a wide survey of brick-and-mortar retailers, found sales for the month down 12.5 percent, traffic down 14.6 percent and transactions down 13.6 percent, while conversion rose 0.4 percent and sales per shopper advanced 2.4 percent.
However, in combining figures for the two months, it found the decreases smaller and the increases larger for each metric: Sales fell 5.2 percent, traffic was down 9.4 percent and transactions declined 7.2 percent, while conversion rose 0.7 percent and sales per shopper rose 4.7 percent.
“I recently heard an analyst saying sales were ‘horrible,’” said Shelley Kohan, vice president of retail consulting at RetailNext, “but even with the April numbers, the outlook is promising. People are getting out and shopping, especially with the weather now turning better, and we’re not hearing a lot about inventory problems from the stores. They’re coming into the heart of spring with their inventories in good balance.”