Alibis Abound as Comp-Store Sales in March Lay a Big Egg

War worries, wintry weather and the late Easter proved undefeatable foes for March same-store sales, which finished below year-ago levels.

NEW YORK — Stores lost the battle for consumers’ attention in March.

They certainly had enough competition. Deprived of Easter revenues by the calendar and of the public’s interest by war worries, wintry weather and a lack of must-have items, apparel retailers limped across the finish line in March with few positive same-store results and more than a few double-digit declines.

Even in Easter-deprived condition, a number of stores — Gap, Pacific Sunwear and Chico’s notable among them — outperformed the competition and delivered solid results. However, only 11 of 50 companies surveyed by WWD managed to deliver increases.

"There are some stores that are gaining," said Russ Jones, a retail consultant, "showing people are willing to spend if the retailer is doing the things to appeal to its customers, but those who have nothing other than price to offer are not performing well."

Overall, the Goldman Sachs comparable-store sales index for March fell 0.5 percent, slightly better than the 0.8 percent expected, but far worse than the 5.6 percent comp gain of March 2002. Weakened by a meager 0.3 percent gain at Wal-Mart’s discount stores and a 1.3 percent drop at Target’s, discounters were up just 1.5 percent versus the 1.2 percent projected. Specialty stores declined 1 percent and department stores came out worst of all with a 5.3 percent comp drop.

There was little consolation in the fact that results in some cases exceeded forecasts. Daniel Barry, a broadline retailing analyst with Merrill Lynch, said comps in his world of 67 retailers fell 3.1 percent, the worst performance since September 2001, when comps declined 3.3 percent. Barry said he blamed the weak results on difficult comparisons with last year, when people stopped traveling in the wake of 9/11 but continued shopping.

Even with the expectations of Easter revenues in April, most stores were cautious about April, which has gotten off to a slow start due to the focus on the Iraqi war and more inclement weather. With two months of the first quarter down and one to go, some retailers — including Target, J.C. Penney and Talbots — scaled back quarterly expectations.

"There are still a lot of expectations going into April because sales in March were weaker, especially for some of the teen retailers," said Dana Telsey, a retail analyst with Bear Stearns.
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