NEW YORK - U.S. retailers reported better-than-expected monthly sales figures for a second straight month in April, offering fresh evidence that consumers' willingness to spend is warming up with the spring weather.
Of the 31 retailers that reported April sales at stores open at least a year, 64 percent topped Wall Street estimates and a handful said they plan to report better first-quarter results than they had expected.
According to Thomson Reuters' revenue-weighted same-store sales index, overall sales rose 1.2 percent, surprising analysts who expected a decline of 0.2 percent, according to Thomson Reuters estimates.
Excluding Wal-Mart Stores Inc, sales fell 2.7 percent, which was still better than the 3.4 percent decline analysts expected.
Still, retail shares were relatively unchanged in morning trade, with the Standard & Poor's Retail Index up less than 1 percent.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc posted a 5 percent rise in April sales at U.S. stores open at least a year, versus analysts' average estimate for a 2.9 percent increase, according to Thomson Reuters estimates.
The world's largest retailer cited demand for Easter merchandise. It has seen an uptick in sales of discretionary items like sporting goods, bedding and towels, as payroll taxes and gasoline prices come down.
Whereas Easter fell in March last year, it was in April this year, meaning that most holiday-related purchases occurred later, in a shift that artificially hurt retailers' March results and lifted April's sales tallies.
Other retailers that cited a benefit from the Easter shift include Abercrombie & Fitch Co, Dillard's Inc and Zumiez Inc. All three reported declines in April same-store sales that were smaller than analysts expected.
Gap Inc also reported a decline that was smaller than expected and plans to report a profit of 29 cents to 30 cents per share for the just-ended first quarter, which is above analysts' average estimate of 24 cents, according to Reuters Estimates. The company said operating expenses should be about $70 million lower than a year earlier, and its shares jumped 5.5 percent.
Lazard Capital Markets analyst Todd Slater noted that much of Gap's strength is from its lower-priced Old Navy chain improving its merchandise and attracting cost-conscious consumers looking to save money in the recession.
While trends at Old Navy are improving, we believe business momentum at Gap stores and Banana Republic continues to deteriorate, Slater said.
Macy's Inc forecast a first-quarter net loss of 19 cents to 21 cents per share, better than the 27 cents-per-share loss analysts were expecting and the company's own plan.
Nevertheless, the department store operator said it was prudent to keep its annual profit view of 40 cents to 55 cents per share unchanged, given the continued economic uncertainty.
TJX Cos Inc, operator of the T.J. Maxx and Marshalls chains, reported better-than-expected April sales results and raised its quarterly view, yet expressed caution.
While we are pleased that our performance has been above our expectations, allowing us to raise our first quarter earnings estimates, the economic environment remains uncertain, said TJX CEO Carol Meyrowitz. We remain cautious in our near-term outlook.
NOT ALL ROSY
Despite those signs of life, there were still some notable disappointments as consumers continue to focus on value.
Costco Wholesale Corp reported an 8 percent decline in same-store sales, worse than the 6.8 percent decline that was expected.
Much of the consumer spending that took place in April was totally replacement driven, according to a new survey by America's Research Group, which added that there is no discretionary spending going on in America.
Whereas the Easter shift helped sales for many teen apparel chains as coinciding spring breaks boosted store traffic, it was negative for Costco, which closed its doors for the holiday and therefore had one less selling day.
Hot Topic Inc posted a 3.1 percent increase in same-store sales that was less than half as big as the increase analysts expected. Its shares dropped 23 percent.
FBR Capital analyst Adrienne Tennant called Hot Topic's results a speed bump on the road to recovery and removed the teen apparel chain from her list of top stock picks.
(Reporting by Martinne Geller, editing by Dave Zimmerman)