msnbc.com news services
updated 3/5/2009 11:27:02 AM ET 2009-03-05T16:27:02

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, posted much stronger same-store sales than analysts expected Thursday, saying its February results rose 5.1 percent.

Tighter inventory control and milder weather helped retailers in February as business at many merchants was not as bad as in January. Same-store sales are seen as a key measure of a retailer’s health.

Wal-Mart’s gains far outpaced expectations — but many stores, especially at the higher end, still struggled. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters, on average, had expected the retail giant to report a rise of 2.4 percent.

The month showed a widening rift between moderately priced stores and luxury chains like Saks Inc. In the results released Thursday, mall-based clothing chains including Wet Seal Inc., Stage Stores Inc. and American Eagle Outfitters Inc. still saw sales slump, but the declines weren’t as steep as Wall Street expected. At teen retailer The Buckle Inc., the same-store gain was more than double what Wall Street expected.

Nevertheless, analysts were quick to say that February’s figures are unlikely to mark the beginning of a recovery. Consumers are still grappling with massive job cuts, tight credit and plummeting stock portfolios. The fear is that the economy could deteriorate even more as more people lose their jobs and are forced to slash spending even further.

The retail sales reports came as the Labor Department said that the number of new jobless claims and the total number of people receiving unemployment benefits both dropped unexpectedly last week — though they remain high. In fact, economists surveyed by Thomson/IFR expect data out Friday to show that unemployment rose to 7.9 percent in February from 7.6 percent in January as companies kept slashing jobs.

“It’s still ugly, but it’s dressed up a little bit,” said Ken Perkins, president of research company RetailMetrics LLC, referring to the February sales figures. “The macro headwinds outweigh fashion, newness and better weather and will continue to make it very difficult for retailers through the first half of the year.”

February’s figures are expected to mark the industry’s fifth straight month of overall same-store sales declines.

Groceries and health products remained the best sellers as shoppers turned to the world’s largest retailer for necessities. The company also did well with entertainment products and housewares as more families entertain and cook at home.

Rival Target Corp.’s same-store sales declined 4.1 percent, less than the 4.8 percent drop that Wall Street expected.

TJX Cos., which sells discounted name-brand merchandise, said sales were flat from a year ago — better than the 1.8 percent drop expected.

“We are taking a very conservative approach to managing the business, buying very sharply and maintaining lean, fast-turning inventories,” Chief Executive and President Carol Meyrowitz said in a statement.

Among department stores, Macy’s Inc.’s same-store sales fell 8.5 percent, deeper than the 7.3 percent decline that Wall Street expected. J.C. Penney Co. Inc.’s 8.8 percent decline was less than the 12.9 percent drop expected.

Luxury stores have been the industry’s worst performers, scrambling to cut inventories to react to plummeting customer demand for $5,000 handbags and $3,000 dresses. Saks Inc., which operates Saks Fifth Avenue, suffered a 26 percent declines, deeper than the 20.5 percent drop expected by Wall Street. And Neiman Marcus Group Inc. said that same-store sales in the segment that includes Neiman Marcus Stores and Bergdorf Goodman fell 24.2 percent.

Nordstrom Inc. posted a 15.4 percent drop in same-store sales, deeper than the 14.4 percent decline expected.

Limited Brands Inc., which operates Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works, posted a decline of 7 percent. Analysts expected a drop of 7.1 percent. Stage Stores said same-store sales fell 8.6 percent, less than the 9.3 percent drop analysts expected.

Teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters Inc. posted a 7 percent decline, less than the 13.4 percent drop forecast by Wall Street. The Wet Seal Inc. posted a 6.6 percent decline, less than the 12 percent drop expected by analysts.

But The Buckle Inc. posted a 21 percent increase in February, far above the 9 percent gain expected. And Hot Topic Inc. reported Wednesday that its same-store sales rose 10.8 percent, more than double what analysts predicted, as teens snapped up accessories.

More on  retail sales   |  Wal-Mart

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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