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Easter Bunny to retailers: No stellar March same-store sales for you!

When retailers report March sales on Thursday, the numbers aren't going to look too great, say analysts. Blame the tardy rabbit. The weekend before the holiday is historically strong for loading up on new duds. "Easter has come to symbolize the start to the spring shopping season for many consumers," says Todd Slater, analyst with

Lazard Freres

.

But Easter falls late this year, April 23, as opposed to April 4 in 1999. That means preholiday sales that usually fall in March will be deferred to April, hurting March sales. To make matters worse, sales in March were particularly robust last year, which means the absence of the pre-Easter bump will be felt even more. (This won't affect earnings for most retailers, since their first quarters run through April.)

Falling In

Retailers with lots of womens' apparel and childrenswear are particularly vulnerable. On a conference call previewing March sales,

Robertson Stephens

analyst Janet Kloppenburg said she expects the

Gap's

(GPS) - Get Gap, Inc. Report

sales to be about flat thanks to the kids' business at Gap and

Old Navy

. (She rates Gap shares a buy and her firm hasn't done recent underwriting for the company.)

Department stores are also likely to take a hit. Negative comps are expected from

Dillard's

(DDS) - Get Dillard's, Inc. Class A Report

TheStreet Recommends

,

Federated

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,

May

(MAY)

,

Saks

(SKS)

and

J.C. Penney

(JCP) - Get J. C. Penney Company, Inc. Report

, according to

PaineWebber's

retail team, while even recent stars like

Kohl's

(KSS) - Get Kohl's Corporation Report

and

Nordstrom

(JWN) - Get Nordstrom, Inc. Report

will clock in at between zero and 2% sales growth.

Look behind those headline numbers, and things are actually going pretty well, slightly above stores' own plans, according to analysts. And some companies will likely buck the trend.

Costco

(COST) - Get Costco Wholesale Corporation Report

and

Talbots

(TLB)

may show double-digit growth. And some teeny-bopper retailers, like

Pacific Sunwear

(PSUN)

and

Hot Topic

(HOTT)

, will also likely post sales gains in the mid-to-high single digits, even without Easter break's tide of sales, according to Kindra Hix, an analyst with

Banc of America Securities

(she rates Pacific Sunwear and Hot Topic shares buy, and her firm has done underwriting for both).

Can't Fool All the People...

Now everyone, in theory, already knows that the March numbers will be generally yucky. The interesting thing will be how investors react when the figures actually cross their screens. After all, everyone came into 2000 knowing retailers would face tough monthly sales comparisons in the first half and that the Fed would likely continue to raise interest rates. Those trends were supposedly in the market.

And yet, many retailers were tromped anyway, recovering only recently, as so-called Old Economy stocks came back into vogue a bit.

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Walmart Inc. Report

, for example, fell about 35% from the beginning of the year through February, and has since regained some ground, though it's still down some 14% for the year.

"It never ceases to amaze me how the market is surprised by the most obvious and well-telegraphed events," says Slater.

Whether March's numbers are perceived as good or bad will depend on investors' moods on Thursday. And after that news is digested, expectations for a strong April will start building. If he didn't come around in March, the bunny had damned well better deliver some serious eggs in April.