The Easter Bunny provided a few, but hardly all, of the sweets retailers were hoping for in March.

This story first appeared in the April 10, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The small sample of stores continuing to report monthly sales generally delivered tepid results for the month, but there were a few signs of energy in the apparel sector.

Although he described the overall results as “dismal” and noted the March numbers — an overall increase of 0.2 percent — constituted the “weakest comp-store reading since November 2012, when sales slipped by 0.1 percent,” Michael Niemira, chief economist and principal of The Retail Economist LLC, took note of “a lift to apparel demand from the earlier Easter,” which occurred this year on April 5 rather than last year’s celebration on April 20.

But he pointed out that the March results marked the third time in as many months that sales remained “depressed.”

Thomson Reuters put the increase for the month, excluding drugstores, at 1.1 percent, matching its final estimate. Apparel stores improved 2.8 percent, although the figure would have been 5.4 percent without Gap Inc.’s 2 percent gain, which carried extra weight because of Gap’s high volume. Still, 56 percent of retailers missed analysts’ consensus estimates.

The results were also inconsistent, with factors including region, gas prices and the expected “Easter dividend” working their way into the numbers.

L Brands Inc. easily exceeded estimates, with the overall comp increase and those at Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works all coming in at a robust 9 percent. The company reported improved merchandise margins at VS and B&BW and said that the timing of Easter lifted March comp results between 3 and 4 points, although it expects that advantage to be given back in April, when it projects comps will be flat to up at a low-single-digit rate.

Reporting after the close of the markets Thursday, Gap Inc.’s overall gain of 2 percent exceeded estimates, although the positive finish was wholly attributable to the 14 percent gain at Old Navy, neutralizing a 7 percent decline at Gap brand and a 3 percent drop at Banana Republic.

With strong concentrations of stores across the Southeast and South, Stein Mart Inc. and Cato Corp. registered strong numbers — gains of 11.2 and 12 percent, respectively. Stein Mart pointed out that its Northeastern stores registered midsingle-digit increases while those in other regions had high-single or double-digit comp advances.

The two teen retailers remaining in the comp mix, Zumiez Inc. and The Buckle Inc., fell short of expectations with, respectively, a 5.5 percent increase and a 0.5 percent decline.

Janney Capital Markets analyst Adrienne Yih described the month’s results as “just OK, not great” but agreed with what appeared to be a general consensus that retailers were heading into the final month of the first retail quarter with inventories that reflected a disciplined approach without a pick-up in promotional cadence.

L Brands, for instance, said inventories per square foot were down 10 percent.

In the broader brick-and-mortar market, RetailNext, which monitors shopping and purchasing behavior among more than 1 billion shoppers a year, found that overall sales were down 3.2 percent during the month with an 8.2 percent decline in traffic. But March saw the biggest increase in sales per transaction in over a year, at 5.8 percent, along with gains in conversion (0.9 percent) and average transaction value (3.5 percent). By region, the West excelled, with the smallest decline in traffic, 3.1 percent, and an 8.3 percent increase in sales, the only positive performance of the four regions.

The West also led the nation in average transaction value (up 8.3 percent) and sales per shopper (up 11.9 percent). The Northeast, hurt throughout the month by weather, had an 11.1 percent decline in traffic and a 4.4 percent drop in sales, both the worst measures among the four regions.

The comp results pressured retail stocks downward. While the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 0.3 percent to 17,958.73 and the S&P 500 rose 0.5 percent to 2,091.18, the S&P 500 Retailing Industry Group lost 0.4 percent and closed at 1,132.79. Even with Old Navy’s hefty increase, Gap shares receded 1.5 percent to $42.10 in after-hours trading. The stock rose 0.8 percent to $42.73 in the regular New York Stock Exchange trading session.

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