Most U.S. retailers posted lower March sales at stores open at least a year, as shoppers remained focused on necessities and put off spring purchases because of a later Easter holiday this year.
Of the two dozen or so retailers that have already reported March results on Thursday, most posted same-store sales declines, as the recession continues to hamper consumer spending. Yet 43 percent of them topped analysts' estimates, and several retailers even raised their quarterly earnings outlooks.
Retail leader Wal-Mart Stores Inc
At Wal-Mart's Sam's Club warehouse stores, discretionary categories such as jewelry, mattresses and furniture remained weak.
But Wal-Mart, whose shares fell 4.5 percent in early trading, said it expected earnings to be at the high end of its forecast for the fiscal first quarter, which ends April 30.
Costco Wholesale Corp
Excluding the impact of lower gas prices, Costco posted a 4 percent gain. The warehouse club operator benefited from the later Easter, which brought an extra day of business in March because it did not have to close its stores for the holiday.
But the later Easter was not good news for everyone.
Specialty apparel and accessories retailers American Eagle Outfitters Inc
Stage Stores and Wet Seal both said that in order to get a truer sense of their early spring sales trends, it will be necessary to look at the March and April periods together.
Along with the later Easter come later spring breaks from many schools and universities. This hurt retailers such as Aeropostale and American Eagle, which cater to teens and young adults. American Eagle's March sales fell 16 percent, while analysts were expecting a 10.4 percent decline.
Nonetheless, American Eagle raised the bottom end of its quarterly earnings outlook, citing a controlled promotional strategy during the month.
Some other chains that cater to teenagers, such as Buckle Inc
Independent retail analyst Jennifer Black said she was not surprised by Hot Topic's results, calling the company one of the few retailers who are out on top, despite reporting declines in certain merchandise categories due to the Easter shift.
Limited Brands Inc
(Additional reporting by Aarthi Sivaraman in New York, Nicole Maestri in San Francisco, Dhanya Skariachan in Bangalore and Jessica Wohl and Ben Klayman in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)