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Gap, AnnTaylor Rise on Retail's Strong January

The Gap continues to disappoint, but AnnTaylor reports a massive upside surprise.
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Apparel outfits


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lived up to their very different reputations Thursday.

Gap, which rarely surprises anyone these days, reported more of the same: A worse-than-expected plunge in January sales. Meanwhile analysts trying to guess AnnTaylor's monthly sales might as well throw darts: Its same-store sales, which measure activity in shops open at least a year, surged 14.6% in January; on average, analysts had been expecting just a 2.2% rise, according to Thomson Financial/First Call.

Impressed by stronger-than-expected results across the industry, led as usual by fast-growing discounters such as




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, investors bid up the shares of both companies Thursday. Gap shares added 44 cents to trade at $13.34 at midday, while Ann Taylor was up $1.97, or 7.2%, at $40.05.

Not So Slow

AnnTaylor's number was the biggest surprise among the numerous retailers that reported monthly sales Thursday. January, typically a slow month for retail sales, was far better than most observers expected. Overall, same-store sales for a group of 33 major retailers tracked by Thomson Financial/First Call rose 4.4% from a year earlier, nearly double the expectations for a 2.4% gain.

Gap's same-store sales declined by 16%, compared with expectations of a 12.6% decline. It marked the 21st straight month that same-store sales declined at Gap, which was once a darling of Wall Street. "As expected, results were driven by continued clearance of holiday merchandise as we made room for initial spring product," said Heidi Kunz, Gap's chief financial officer, in a statement. "Although merchandise margins met expectations, they were well below last year, due to both lower markdown margins and higher sales at markdown."

Gap said it would lose 3 cents to 5 cents a share in the fourth quarter, which it is scheduled to report on Feb. 27. Analysts on average expect Gap to lose 5 cents a share, according to Thomson Financial/First Call. AnnTaylor raised its guidance, saying it expects earnings of 33 cents to 34 cents a share, compared with a consensus estimate of 27 cents a share, according to Thomson Financial/First Call.

Hard to Figure

For AnnTaylor, the gyrations continue. Its solid January performance contrasts sharply with how it did last fall, when it lowered earnings guidance twice,

dashing hopes that a turnaround was imminent. The guidance the company gave Thursday for the fourth quarter merely brings it back up to what Wall Street had been expecting in early November.

But at least there are signs of hope at AnnTaylor, which successfully carved its niche as a seller of conservative office attire to younger professional women, before growth slowed last year. The company hired two top new merchants last year for its Ann Taylor and Ann Taylor Loft divisions, which sparked hope a revival. However, the terrorist attacks and recession slowed the pace of a rebound.

At Gap the story is different. The company has expanded too much and made a series of fashion missteps, say critics. This year is generally regarded as

make-or-break for the company, which can't go on forever losing money and reporting falling sales. Last November, Gap raised about $700 million in the bond market; analysts say this bought the company a year before it could face liquidity problems. In early January, Moody's downgraded Gap's credit rating and said further downgrades were possible.

The January results offered a stark reminder to the optimistic investors who bid Gap shares up last month after the company said December same-store sales were stronger than expected, though still down sharply. Gap shares are off about 18% since that mid-January runup.