Value retailers found themselves with the right price point at the right time last year and made the most of the recession, expanding sales as the competition floundered.

While the year was especially kind to off-price retailers, like The TJX Cos. Inc. and Ross Stores Inc., and midtier department store Kohl’s Corp., it also played to the advantage of the value standouts in various market niches, such as teen retailer Aéropostale Inc. and even Gap Inc.’s resurgent Old Navy family apparel unit. But 2010 could test the ability of these stores and several others to hold onto those market share gains as shoppers find themselves in somewhat more stable, if still relatively uncertain, economic circumstances.

Kohl’s, for one, prominently planted the value flag and has reaped the rewards so far.

“We’ve gained significant market share nationwide,” said Kevin Mansell, chairman, president and chief executive officer, on a November conference call. “Sales have been better than planned and the success has been spread across merchandise areas and regions of the country.”

And the reason given for the strength neatly sums up the retail landscape last year.

“The sales gains were driven by improved perceptions of Kohl’s value equation compared to competitors,” Mansell said.

If consumers have indeed “reset” their attitudes toward shopping, it only means good things for stores focusing on thrift.

“The habit of going to value players, there’s going to be a stickiness associated with it,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, noting last year was “a home run” for the lower end.

For TJX, parent of TJ Maxx and Marshalls, the recession only helped them solidify their position in the market. For the 12 months ended Oct. 31, TJX pulled in sales of $19.73 billion, well ahead of Gap Inc., for instance, which had revenues of $14.04 billion.

“They have been building market share steadily for a decade now,” said Johnson of the off-pricer. “That value proposition became even more relevant to the core customer and became newly relevant to a whole new swath of consumers once the recession hit.”

Fellow off-pricer Ross also excelled. And once the economy picks up, these value players might well find they have some consumer converts.

“The value of thrift, the lessons that people have learned no matter where they are in the income bracket…nobody wants to pay retail [price] anymore,” Johnson said. “Particularly in apparel, they feel like a chump to pay full retail these days.”

Johnson said off-pricers would hold onto at least some of their recession gains and pick up even more if the economy takes a second dip.

Twenty-nine percent of shoppers said they are more likely to consider shopping at discount stores this year because of promotions and other discounts, compared with 18 percent at midtier stores and 9 percent at top-tier stores, according to The Harris Poll, an online survey of 2,276 adults performed last month.

Except for grocery shopping, 18 percent of respondents said they plan to visit discount stores more often than in the past, compared with 7 percent for mid- and 4 percent for top-tier stores.

“Folks have had a taste of the value that is available at the other [lower] price points and folks will continue to shop in those channels,” said Matthew Katz, managing director and retail practice leader for AlixPartners, adding the segment has also upped its game with better product availability.

And shoppers no longer hesitate to pair a Louis Vuitton bag with something from TJ Maxx, he said.

“It’s about attitude more than about a brand and so consumers are showing their own stripes,” Katz said. “It’s not a generational thing. Our society has become a society of savers.”

Even so, the stocks of retailers catering to penny-pinchers might begin to falter after a strong run last year. For instance, TJX’s stock shot up 80.5 percent last year as the S&P Retail Index advanced a lesser 47.2 percent.

Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Robert Samuels this month advised investors to avoid value retailers, including Aéropostale, TJX and Ross Stores, because they face tough comparisons with a year ago and could see slower earnings growth.

Samuels downgraded the three firms to “underperform” from “perform” and said they had “overwhelmingly benefited from the economic downturn.”

“Although we think these retailers sharpened their business models, managed inventories nicely, and even improved product and merchandising, the traffic increases from tradedown are simply too impactful to ignore,” he said. “Difficult comparisons leave us worried that earnings growth will begin to decelerate.”

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