NEW YORK - Wealthier shoppers went on a buying binge in January and even middle-income Americans spent a little more, retailers said Thursday. Some chains reported their brightest monthly results in years.
The prospects for many stores' fourth-quarter profit also brightened further. Macy's, Gap Inc., Children's Place Retail Stores Inc. and others raised their outlooks Thursday, because they didn't have to discount as heavily to sell what they ordered for the holiday season and their total sales rose.
Compared with a sharp drop last year in January sales at stores open a least a year, the strong performances offered a nice finish to the industry's fiscal year, which typically ends in January.
"It ties a nice bow around the fourth quarter," said Bryan Eshelman, managing director in the retail practice of AlixPartners, a global business advisory firm.
But Eshelman and other analysts worry that shoppers grappling with high joblessness and tight credit will now take a break, and the first quarter could be more gloomy for stores.
"The jobs are not there, the unemployment rate is high, and consumers are saving more of their income," Eshelman said. "My guess is that they'll be taking a breather."
Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, said January's comparison of sales at stores open at least a year was encouraging. It shows consumers are "tiptoeing back, though they haven't dramatically changed their shopping patterns."
The figure is considered a key indicator of a retailer's health because it excludes the effects of stores that open or close during the year.
Even Abercrombie&Fitch, which had seen its teen customers defect to less expensive alternatives, reported its first increase since April 2008.
The ICSC's preliminary index for retail sales overall rose 3 per cent, compared with a 4.6 per cent drop a year ago. The increase builds on a 3.6 per cent rise in December and is well above ICSC's forecast for a 1 per cent gain.
Overall, mall-based clothing chains enjoyed a 6.4 per cent gain for January, the best performance since March 2007, when it rose 7 per cent. But this January's figures are a comparison against a month - January 2009 - when the index fell 14 per cent for clothing stores.
The ICSC index and forecasts exclude Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, which stopped reporting its sales monthly last year.
Niemira expects the index to rise 2 per cent for February, and he's sticking with his annual growth forecast of 3 per cent to 3.5 per cent. That would be the strongest showing since 2006, when the pace was 4.8 per cent. The average monthly change in 2009 was a 1.9 per cent drop.
Luxury chains such as Nordstrom Inc. and Saks Inc. had gained the most, zooming past Wall Street expectations.
J.C. Penney Co., Stage Stores Inc. and teen retailer Wet Seal suffered declines. Target Corp. and Costco Wholesale Corp. reported only modest gains, excluding gasoline sales.
January's strength came despite poor weather and limited racks of holiday clearance items.
January is the least important month of the year on retailers' calendar as stores use the period to clear out winter merchandise and bring in spring goods. For the holiday season, stores ordered so conservatively that they ended December with relatively little extra inventory - and less than usual to mark down in January.
As a result, some stores pushed up deliveries of spring items, and Lazard Capital Markets analyst Todd Slater said his network of consultants across the country reported that many stores reported selling spring items at full price. Hot sellers included $200 jeans and $100 Ugg sneakers, he said.
Raising concerns among economists was the U.S. Labour Department report issued Thursday showing the number of workers filing initial claims for jobless benefits rose unexpectedly last week, evidence that layoffs are continuing and jobs remain scarce.
The rise was the fourth in five weeks. Most economists had thought claims would resume the fall's and winter's downward trend.