Updated from 10:33 a.m. EDT
The nation's major retailers reported strong results for March as an early Easter had sales hopping, but the figures topped expectations even taking into account the holiday shift.
But while the March results were generally viewed as robust, analysts warned that April could bring showers of red ink.
According to Thomson Financial, 79% of the 51 retailers reporting March same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, had beaten analysts' estimates Thursday, while 21% missed Wall Street's expectations.
Teen apparel was the top sector, with an overall same-store sales increase of 11.6%, while the specialty sector was the poorest performing, wheezing in with a 7% decrease in comps.
March sales benefited from the earlier Easter this year, which shifted sales for the holiday into the March period from April last year. As well, March was helped by balmy weather and an extra Saturday in the period.
"The numbers were particularly strong; I don't think there's any doubt about that," said Ken Perkins, president of the research firm Retail Metrics. "(But) as strong as March was, we think April will be particularly weak."
Aside from being hurt by the Easter shift, Perkins said April sales may be affected by the cold snap that hit a large part of the U.S. during Easter week. Other factors, such as ongoing troubles in the housing market, could also pull down sales, he said.
Howard Davidowitz, chairman of retail consulting and investment banking firm Davidowitz & Associates, says April could be "very ugly."
"I think we're in for a very soft first quarter and March is very misleading," he says. "Retailers are having a free lunch in March and they're going to buy dinner in April."
The world's largest retailer,
warned of a tough April selling environment, which will make meeting its first-quarter profit guidance of 68 cents to 71 cents a share a "challenge."
The company's same-store sales climbed 4% for March, surpassing its forecast for a 1% to 2% rise. Wal-Mart expects April same-store sales to be flat to down 2%, reflecting the Easter shift. Because of the change, the company faces tough comparisons to the year-ago period.
On Wednesday, Wal-Mart rival
reported a 12% jump in same-store sales, meeting expectations. But for April, Target sees a 2% to 4% decline in comps.
had a surprise turnaround in March. The clothing seller reported a 6% rise in same-store sales, easily beating analysts' forecast for a 1.1% decline for the month. The company, which has been struggling with a sales slump for more than two years, saw growth across all three of its brands.
Same-store sales rose 4% at Gap stores, 8% at Banana Republic and 10% at Old Navy. While the results were in part boosted by the Easter shift, the company also said it benefited from a spring clearance at Gap and Banana Republic, which hurt margins.
As for other specialty clothing chains,
same-store sales increased 6.1%, well ahead of Wall Street's estimate of 1.3%. The company said results were helped by the warm weather in the beginning of the month and the earlier timing of Easter this year.
, owner of chains including Express, Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works, recorded an 8% climb in same-store sales. Analysts expected a 6.7% rise.
Among department stores,
reported same-store sales growth of 10.6%, ahead of Wall Street's estimate for a 7.5% increase. Total company sales increased 10.7% to $1.71 billion.
Results for the month were driven by strength in apparel categories, Penney said, while home continued to experience some weakness.
said comp sales increased 16.8%, smashing Wall Street's estimate of 9.2%. Total sales increased 25.4% to $1.55 billion.
Kohl's raised its first-quarter same-store sales view to 5% from a prior forecast for a 2% to 4% rise. The projection implies a March/April combined comparable sales increase of 5% to 6%.
Luxury store operator
said same-store sales increased 15%, easily beating Wall Street's forecast of 8.2%. Sales increased 14.2% to $803.2 million.
, also a high-end retailer, said comps increased 10.1%, below Wall Street's estimate for 13% growth. That came after the company had a blowout month in February, when same-store sales surged nearly 25%.
said comps increased 6%, beating Wall Street's forecast of 0.2% decline. Total sales increased 8% to $679.6 million.
Federated Department Stores
( FD) was among the few disappointments. The Macy's owner's same-store sales rose 2.3%, short of its own guidance for an increase of 2.5% to 4%, and below Wall Street's estimate of 3.3%. Total sales increased 1.5% to of $2.29 billion.
"March sales fell just short of our expectations in most regions across the country, largely attributable to weakness in home-related merchandise categories," Terry Lundgren, chairman, president and CEO, said in a statement. "Unseasonably cold weather as new spring merchandise flowed into the stores in the pre-Easter period also contributed to disappointing sales in the month."
Federated continues to expect same-store sales in April to increase by 2.5% to 4%, but the company said sales in the first quarter are expected to be at the low end of previous guidance of $6 billion to $6.1 billion.
Struggling specialty retailer
( SHRP) reported a 29% drop in comps -- the worst same-store sales figure of all the major chains reporting. Total sales tumbled 45% to $22.1 million.
In the teen space, clothing chain
Abercrombie & Fitch
posted a 7% jump in same-store sales for the month, surging past Wall Street's target of 2.4% growth.
same-store sales rose 15.9%, compared with analysts' forecast for an 8% rise.
had a bright month, with same-store sales surging 14.1%. Wall Street expected a 3.4% rise.
The reports follow
strong showings from fellow teen retailers
American Eagle Outfitters
( HOTT) late Wednesday.