A Blizzard of Declines: Weather, War Worries Sink February Comps

February same-store sales came in below plan and, thanks to inclement weather for much of the month, below year-ago levels, too.

Gap Inc was one of only a few retailers with comp increases in February but it couldn’t escape the snow in New York on Thursday

Gap Inc. was one of only a few retailers with comp increases in February but it couldn’t escape the snow in New York on Thursday.

Photo By Giovanni Giannoni

NEW YORK — "The snowfall caused the shortfall."

That’s how retail analyst Todd Slater, of Lazard Frères, summed up February’s comparable-store sales, which he further characterized as "the worst February comp performance since 1993."

With retailers’ customers housebound by a brutal Presidents’ Day weekend snowstorm, heightened terrorist warnings, incessant tension about Iraq and North Korea and escalating gas prices, few retailers were able to match their year-ago comp numbers. In fact, only 11 of 50 firms surveyed by WWD managed a same-store increase. Wal-Mart Stores, one of the few advancers, said its sales were helped by pantry-loading of water, canned foods and duct tape, hardly the environment for the merchandising of miniskirts or the promotion of pedal pushers.

Last month’s snowstorm was not only severe but poorly timed, arriving just as mid-month holiday promotions were slated to provide the biggest chunk of their sales for the month. Instead, stores were closed or virtually empty and a challenging month became an outright struggle.

Stores found little consolation in the fact that spring merchandise checked well in less wintry locales, and there was a sense that rock salt had been rubbed in the wound when the Northeast was hit by another icy snowfall on Thursday, arriving just as the anemic February sales results did.

"It was as horrible as we imagined," Slater said. "It’s said that hope springs eternal, but in February, it was forfeited to snowfall."

The Goldman Sachs Retail Index was flat in February, reversing a 5.6 percent increase in the 2002 month. Again, discounters were able to shovel out by posting a 2.6 percent increase in February, down from a 9.7 percent increase last year, but better than the 1.3 percent increase forecast by GS. Specialty apparel stores fell 2 percent, compared with a 3 percent decrease last year and expectations of a 2 percent increase. Department stores faltered, falling 5.6 percent, versus a 0.4 percent increase last year and the 5.5 percent drop penciled in by GS.

And the forecast for March is still a winter advisory. Most retailers declined to provide earnings guidance for the first quarter based only on results from its first month, but all are cognizant of the negative impact of Easter’s shift from March last year to April this year.
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