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Retailers Get Easter Boost, but Grim April Looms

BY CSA STAFF

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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Chico’s Comp-Store Sales Up 5.2%

BY CSA STAFF

Fort Myers, Fla., Chico’s FAS Inc. said Tuesday its comp-store sales grew 5.2% in March from the same month of 2006. Chico’s said its overall sales grew 22% to $191.2 million for the five-week period ending April 7. So far this fiscal year, the company said overall sales have grown 19% to $304 million from $255 million, while comp-store sales are up 1.5%.

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Store brands still growing at office supers

BY CSA STAFF

It’s all about the margin for the nation’s leading office product superstores who are counting on increased penetration of private brands as a key driver of profit growth going forward.

That was certainly the case last year as the percentage of sales generated by private brands at Staples, Office Depot and OfficeMax reached record levels of roughly 20% or more. The three companies’ total combined sales reached $42.2 billion and of that amount approximately $8.4 billion came from proprietary brand sales, nearly double the amount from just a few years ago. The increase is one of the reasons each of the office product resellers reported gross margin improvements and increased operating profitability.

While the shift is great for the retailers, it has added pressure to suppliers of branded office products, especially those whose products lack differentiation or questionable brand equity. Now the situation is set to intensify and each of the big three office products resellers has clearly communicated their intention to drive further profit growth through increased private label sales.

Staples has provided the clearest direction in this regard, indicating that 20% of last year’s sales of $18.2 billion came from proprietary brands. The company also indicated its long-term goal is to achieve a 30% penetration rate. To get there, Staples last month promoted the former head of its private brand development group, Jevin Eagle, to the position of evp of merchandising where he now oversees all product categories including technology, supplies and office decor. Eagle’s prior roles as senior vp of the private brand group was filled by David D’Angelo who previously served as vp of product development, sourcing and operations and reported to Eagle.

If Staples achieves its goal, the company could be looking at estimated private brand sales of $7.5 billion based on analysts’ estimates that Staples’ organic rate of growth will push its annual sales into the vicinity of $25 billion by the end of 2010.

A similar growth situation exists at Office Depot where the company hasn’t disclosed figures on its private brand penetration rate since 2005. That was when the company’s goal for the year was hitting 18% to 20%, but since then there have been numerous new brand introductions in categories throughout the store which have pushed the private brand sales figure well above the 20% penetration rate and have analysts forecasting that Office Depot is ahead of Staples on its way to 30% penetration.

“Office Depot continues to view virtually the entire store as appropriate for private label product with notebook computers the sole exception,” said Colin McGranahan with Bernstein Research.

While Office Depot and Staples have well-established private brand programs, OfficeMax has quickly closed the gap. It ended last year with roughly 2,000 private brand items representing 20% of its annual sales of nearly $9 billion compared to 14% two years earlier. The company has committed to further expansion of private brands, but stopped short of providing a specific penetration rate target during a recent meeting with financial analysts.

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