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This morning February retail sales came in much better than expected, diverging from what individual retailers reported last Thursday. The U.S. Bureau of the Census, said sales increased 1.1% versus the Bloomberg consensus estimate of 0.5%. That result compares to a upwardly revised 0.2% increase in January. Strength this month was seen in building materials & garden equipment, food & beverage stores, clothing & apparel, and general merchandise stores.

Last Thursday, a handful of retailers, including specialty retailers, warehouse clubs and teen retailers, released their sales results for the month of February. While the results came in better than expected, they showed a deceleration from January, opposite of what the broader report today showed. There were plenty of excuses for the slowdown by individual retailers - cold weather, payroll taxes, delayed tax returns, and higher gasoline prices. Those seemed to be ignored by today's report.

Retail stocks have typically reacted to the retail sales data, despite the fact that the individual retailers reported results the Thursday before. Today the retail sales data is giving the SPDR Retail Index (XRT) a boost, indicating the data now plays a more significant role in the trading of retail stocks. That isn't surprising, because over the last few years the number of retailers releasing monthly sales results has decreased significantly, with the decline continuing into the start of fiscal 2013 (begins in February for most retailers). Case in point, in January there were 18 retailers reporting same store sales tracked by Thomson Reuters, but in February (when fiscal 2013 began) only 11 retailers reported monthly sales.

The largest change came from the department stores - 5 reported monthly sales in January, but none reported sales in February. That group could see a more dramatic move in the stocks today. MasterCard Advisors previously said that the department store group had mixed results in February, with the luxury department stores faring worse than the moderate stores. Today's report showed that the department store sales declined 1% from January on an adjusted basis. The department store sector isn't broken out by luxury or moderate groups. Clothing stores sales, however, increased 0.2% on an adjusted basis in February. That likely includes smaller boutique shops, and its likely those types of stores are taking share from the department stores as customers look for a more intimate experience.

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