Inclement weather may have frozen February sales at many retailers, but don't expect a spring thaw to revive bottom lines.

Blaming the weather, many big-name retailers

posted declining same-store sales figures for February on Thursday. Despite the often disappointing results, many companies either affirmed their earnings guidance for the first quarter or said it was too early to tell how the quarter will turn out.

But retailers may be overly optimistic, industry analysts say. The slow sales in February will probably hurt most companies' bottom lines, they say. And with problems other than the weather slowing consumer spending, sales may not pick up much in March or April.

"It will be a tough first quarter for retailers to meet their earnings targets," said Russell Jones, an independent retail consultant.

February was a tough time for many retailers. Fast-growing


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, for instance, saw its same-store sales fall 4.6% in February.

Abercrombie & Fitch

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, which recently broke a string of comparable-store sales declines, headed negative again in February, seeing same-store sales fall 4%. Same-store sales compare results at outlets open more than one year.

Even retail behemoth


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had a slow February. The company's 2.6% same-store sales growth came in toward the bottom half of its expected range.

Instinet Research's index of same-store sales, the Redbook Average, declined 0.6% in February compared with the same period a year before. Retailers surveyed had been projecting a 1.1% gain.

Many retailers fingered the weather as the cause of their problems. A widespread snowstorm in the middle of the month forced many retailers to close stores, often for days at a time. Retailers with heavy presences in the Northeast often saw a sharp hit in their sales.

Some retailers warned that sales shortfalls in February were going to hit their bottom lines. Companies such as






have already warned analysts to lower their earnings expectations. Meanwhile,

BJ's Wholesale Club

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warned analysts that it expects its full-year 2003 earnings to come in up to 46 cents a share less than its previous projections.

Expect many more such warnings before the quarter ends, analysts say. For starters, most retailers probably didn't plan on having a February shortfall, they say.

"Undoubtedly, this is bound to have an impact on the quarter," said Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Consulting Group and publisher of

Barnard's Retail Trend Report

newsletter. "It can't help, but it will."

For many retailers, February represents less than a third of first-quarter sales. So, some retailers might be hoping to make up for a poor performance in February with better sales in the rest of the quarter. But that could prove to be a false hope, analysts say.

Blaming the Weather

That weather slowed sales is something of a canard, said Jones. Customers may delay going to a store because of bad weather, but once the weather clears they are likely to make the purchases they would have made anyway, he said. That sales were weak for the entire month of February points to deeper problems in consumer spending.

"My feeling is that this is not all the fault of the weather," Jones said.

A weak economy, a scarcity of jobs and a boring selection of spring offerings have all contributed to slow sales, Barnard said. Even more troublesome, energy prices are rising, meaning consumers will have less money in their wallets to spend on clothes, housewares and electronics, he said.

"Things aren't going to get better once the weather clears," Barnard said. "Consumer spending is going to take a hit."

To date, many retailers have been able to stimulate consumer spending by dropping prices, said Richard Hastings, chief retail economist at Bernard Sands. Many have been able to do so profitably because they're often paying producers less for the goods they sell, he said.

But that cycle won't continue for long, he said. Already, retailers are finding that price cuts are no longer stimulating demand. Meanwhile, with energy prices going up and the dollar declining, the prices retailers are paying suppliers are increasing.

"Based upon developing trends in consumer spending, the outlook for later in the year is not good," Hastings said. "It's not good now and it's going to be worse later."

And retailers aren't helping themselves, Jones said. The only hook most retailers have used to lure consumers into their stores is lowered prices. But the actual products they are selling lack pizzazz.

"They're not giving consumers reason to shop," he said.

Sales are being further depressed by the prospects for war in Iraq and other geopolitical concerns, said Michael Niemira, vice president of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi. But even if the situation with Iraq is resolved quickly, don't expect consumer spending to jump back up right away, Niemira said.

Consumers will only be encouraged to spend more when the labor markets firm up, he said. And that won't happen until business investment picks up, he said.

"That may take a little time for that to resolve," he said.