Facing rising prices for gasoline and an assortment of commodities as well as a shift to a later Easter, retailers reporting comparable-store sales Thursday will be hard-pressed to match the exceedingly strong comp results of a year ago, among the strongest in a decade.

 

Persistent winter weather and high gas prices, coupled with the movement of Easter into the latter half of the new month, slowed down March comparable-store sales, according to analysts, who estimated sales to range from down slightly to up in the low-single digits.

 

Retailers are expected to post a 0.5 percent decline, which “could break an 18-month positive string” of comps, according to Retail Metrics president Ken Perkins, who added, “consumers’ wallets are increasingly feeling the pinch, some might say crush, of precipitously higher prices at the pump.”

 

Still, despite limited expectations for the comp numbers, the S&P Retail Index rose 1.3 percent to 526.77 Tuesday after hitting a new 52-week high of 529.47 in midday trading. Leading the charge among stocks tracked by WWD was Abercrombie & Fitch Co., up 10.8 percent to $65.57 after issuing full-year earnings guidance that exceeded analysts’ consensus estimates. Beleaguered American Apparel Inc. bounced back from a Monday drubbing with a 10.8 percent increase of its own, to 82 cents.

 

Despite expectations of a fairly soft March, experts are quick to note that by the end of the month, consumers began showing signs of life, thanks to a fairly sunnier economic picture. In March, unemployment fell to 8.8 percent from 8.9 percent in February.

 

According to Michael Niemira, chief economist and vice president of research at the International Council of Shopping Centers, the final week of comp reporting, ended April 2, was “largely propelled by improving income,” as weekly retail sales rose 2.3 percent from the prior week, following a 0.2 percent improvement.

ICSC predicts March comps to range from flat to up 2 percent, due to a later Easter, which will drag year-over-year results down by 1 to 2 percent.

 

“March gave us some fairly good results,” said John Gamel, an analyst at MasterCard Advisors’ SpendingPulse. “January through March has shown good year-over-year results. The first quarter seems to have been very positive and has added to the story of the recovery.”

 

According to SpendingPulse data, which estimates total U.S. retail sales made by cash, check or credit card, overall apparel sales improved 4.4 percent in March, led by healthy gains in children’s and women’s apparel, which rose 13.3 percent and 6.6 percent, respectively.

 

Footwear slid 1.6 percent and, while men’s and family apparel increased 1.4 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively, they lost considerable momentum coming off a strong February, Gamel said.

 

Department stores posted their first sales growth since September with a modest 0.5 percent gain, while luxury rebounded with an 8.7 percent jump. E-commerce apparel sales flourished with an 18.7 percent leap in sales.

 

“Although tough economic conditions continue, consumers appear to be willing to make purchases for the ‘must-have’ items,” said Jennifer Black of Jennifer Black & Associates. “Companies have begun testing price increases on various items, but we strongly believe increases could only succeed on the chic and fashionable items – basic items will not sell at higher prices.”

 

While he agreed, SpendingPulse’s Gamel echoed concerns over gas prices, explaining that if they remain over $3.50 a gallon through the summer, then consumers will pull back further on discretionary spending, opting instead to purchase goods at one-stop shops or online.

 

“Apparel retailers are trying to pass on increases in prices,” he said, “but it’s higher transportation costs that are a direct tax on consumers.”  

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