Retailers Get Easter Boost, but Grim April Looms

Atlanta, Retailers reported stronger-than-expected March sales on Thursday, helped by this year's earlier Easter holiday. But what the calendar gave retailers in March, it will probably take away in April as many chains warned that comp-store sales results will suffer this month. Some retailers also noted continued softness in sales of home goods amid the weaker U.S. housing market.

Wal-Mart Stores posted a better-than-expected 4% rise in March sales at U.S. stores open at least a year, above the 1.9% increase analysts expected, according to a Reuters survey. Wal-Mart said sales were strong in food and pharmacy, but soft in home and apparel. The company said April sales would be flat to down 2% because of the earlier Easter and a strong April last year.

Easter fell on April 8 this year, compared with April 16 in 2006, so sales of holiday-related items came largely during retailers' March sales periods. Also, some chains said sales benefited from an extra week in the last fiscal year, which caused the March selling period to begin and end one week later than in 2006.

On Wednesday, Target said its March comp-store sales rose 12%, in line with its expectations, but said April sales should fall 2% to 4%.

Among department stores, J.C. Penney Co. said March comp-store sales at its department stores rose 10.6% on strong demand for clothing.

Not all retailers, however, benefited from the early Easter holiday. Federated Department Stores said same-store sales rose a lower-than-expected 2.3%. The retailer said March sales suffered from continued weakness in home goods and from cold weather before Easter.

Bon-Ton Stores’ March same-store sales fell 3.8% due to severe winter weather and weak performances from its home and furniture categories.

Most luxury retailers, including Nordstrom, turned in better-than-expected sales as their consumers bought upscale goods despite rising gasoline prices. Nordstrom said March comp-store sales were up 15%, compared with an 8.6% gain expected by analysts.

Saks Inc.’s same-store sales grew 10.1% in March. Total sales for the five-week period ended April 7 grew 12.1% to $284.3 million, from $253.7 million in the same month of 2006.

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