Mild weather helped spur consumers to buy spring clothing in February, leading to broad sales gains at top U.S. chains, and even perennial laggard Gap Inc
Top retailers such as discounter Target Corp
Gap same-store sales rose 4 percent, while analysts on average expected a 1.4 percent decline, according to Thomson Reuters data. Shares of the company, which benefited from a 12 percent jump at its Banana Republic chain, rose 9.9 percent in premarket trading.
Target, whose February same-store sales rose 7 percent last month, and Macy's, which reported a 4.6 percent gain, each forecast more increases for March.
But with gas prices on the rise, retailers cannot bank on more of the same-broad based gains in the coming months, and should instead gird themselves for an intense fight for shoppers, an analyst said.
Retail is in a share-taking environment, said Joel Bines, managing director of consulting firm AlixPartners. Shoppers will end up consolidating trips.
That could mean extra pressure on struggling retailers, especially those that don't offer enough merchandise to allow shoppers to buy items at one place.
As of Thursday, a gallon of gas in the United States cost $3.74, up 35 cents from a year ago, according to the American Automobile Association.
For now, some positive signs in the economy have trumped rising gasoline prices. The housing market appears to be stabilizing, and the unemployment rate fell to 8.3 percent in January from 9.1 percent in August. The University of Michigan's consumer confidence survey rose for the sixth straight month in February.
And the surging stock market, which this week hit its highest levels since May 2008, has been a boon for upscale chains like Saks Inc
February sales at both chains breezed past Wall Street forecasts. Nordstrom's same-store sales rose 10.2 percent.
Other retailers that beat analysts' estimates on Thursday include off-price TJX Cos Inc
We believe that very favorable weather patterns during the month helped boost demand for spring apparel, TJX Chief Executive Officer Carol Meyrowitz said in a statement.
It remains to be seen whether the boon to February will mean consumers have already completed their spring wardrobes, putting put pressure on March and April results. TJX, for example, forecast only a 1 percent to 3 percent increase for March and April same-store sales, combined.
Limited, which also owns Bath & Body Works, said on Thursday that sales at stores open at least a year rose 8 percent last month, above the analysts' average forecast of 6.2 percent.
On Wednesday, Costco Wholesale Corp
Home decoration and furniture chain Pier 1 Imports Inc
(Reporting By Phil Wahba in New York and Jessica Wohl and Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)