NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- January retail sales are all-but moot in regards to retail companies' overall earnings, but they do provide investors with a first look into the spring selling season -- if you know what you're looking for.
Indeed, the International Council of Shopping Centers expects monthly sales will increase by just 1% -- which would be the fifth consecutive monthly sales increase after a year of declines.
"Winter clearance activity generally dominates the first half of the month, but mid-month, initial spring lines arrive in stores and provide an indicator of future sales activity," Margaret Whitfield, analyst at Sterne Agee, wrote in a note.
Still, January sales, it's worth noting, account for 13% to 15% of total fourth-quarter sales, and just 3% to 5% of annual sales -- although any upside seen during the month could bode well for spring sales and prompt fourth-quarter revisions.
"We remind investors to be honest with themselves and realize that any positives in January are anecdotal, at best, and in our view do not provide any basis for optimism or gloom for the upcoming fiscal year," Eric Beder, analyst at Brean Murray Carret, wrote in a note.
Enough caveats for you? Then read on for our look at eight key retail stocks -- and what to expect when they release their January same-store sales today....
Abercrombie & Fitch
Abercrombie & Fitch
, analysts expect January same-store sales to tumble 9% on average. If, by chance, they happen to come in higher, it will be at the expense of margins, analyst Jennifer Black, of the firm bearing her name, wrote in a note.
The biggest upside to results will come from the $22 million in gift-card promotions that shifted from November and December into January. This shift affected January sales by more than the 1,000 basis points, the Street is projecting, meaning there is a chance Abercrombie could beat estimates.
But "true" comparable sales for the month, which would exclude the benefit from gift cards, would be down 17%, Beder said. "This is another in a series of miserable results versus extremely easy comparisons that reflect what we view as a broken and misguided business model," he wrote. "We see no longer-term fix and believe January results will be classic investor's 'fool's gold.'"
The bull case on Abercrombie continues to be its international business, which J.P. Morgan analyst Brian Tunick expects to reach 20% of sales in 2010 and contribute over 60 cents to earnings.
American Eagle Outfitters
American Eagle Outfitter's
same-store sales turned positive in December for the first time in over a year, and analysts expect this momentum to continue in January, with a 5.2% increase in comparable sales.
Excluding Martin + Osa, which the company is reportedly mulling the sale of, American Eagle could have earned 40 cents in the fourth quarter, Tunick wrote. If American Eagle were to exit Martin + Osa, Tunick anticipates $1.20 to $1.25 in earnings power could be possible for 2010.
Still, Tunick said "there appears to be a growing sense of fatigue with the stock, with most investors disappointed how the company communicated to the market lack of upside to fourth-quarter 2009 estimates."
And Beder remains on guard: "The next three quarters are the easiest by far American Eagle has faced since we began tracking same-store sales for the company in 2002," he wrote in a note. "The relatively muted turn does not provide us with comfort in the company's ability to achieve the Street bull case of material margin gains and future upside."
If Aeropostale matched the 6.2% increase in same-store sales Wall Street is forecasting, it will register its ninth consecutive quarterly comparable sales win versus American Eagle and Abercrombie.
This is the longest winning streak Beder has seen since he began following monthly sales in 2002. "
This demonstrates what we believe the Abercrombie and American Eagle 'apologists' do not understand: that the marketplace has significantly shifted to a value perspective that we do not believe will change in the near term and will continue to favor price and fashion leader Aeropostale," he wrote in a note.
But there are naysayers who fear Aeropostale's productivity and margin levels have peaked. "We think the stock is interesting in the low $30s, but we don't expect to see much multiple expansion," Tunick wrote.
January sales results on Thursday, investors may also see upside revision to the specialty retailer's fourth-quarter earnings.
Tunick says he believes the company can beat fourth-quarter estimates by 3 cents to 4 cents.
The star for the Gap corporation will continue to be the Old Navy chain, as it shows the greatest improvements. The Gap chain, for its part, still remains the biggest challenge, but could also present the greatest opportunity, Sitfel Nicolaus analyst Richard Jaffe wrote in a note.
While clean inventory during the month most likely contributed to improved margins, it may have also held back comparable sales, Jaffe wrote.
Analyst are calling for a 4% gain in same-store sales.
Great Save program might well have saved the discounter in January. The initiative, which offers discounts on bulk goods like paper towels, replaces the former Home Design/Global Bazaar even in years past.
"Given the consumables focus of this event, it may yield more inspiring results," UBS analyst Roxanne Meyer wrote in a note.
Meyer says a key metric for Target is the number of transactions, which has been sequentially improving and has been positive since September.
The key to
beating same-store sales estimates of a 7.8% jump will be the continued strength of low- to mid-ticket discretionary items, Meyer wrote.
The company has shown signs of stability in the United States and January should be boosted by steady food contribution and slight strengthening in lower-ticket discretionary items.
The wholesaler is also expected to see robust international growth.
Television sales heading into the Super Bowl could be lifted by Costco's national store penetration, but it is up against tough comparisons from last year, Meyer wrote.
is expected to be the big winner over the next year, Black writes.
The lure to the high-end department store isn't deep discounts, Jaffe adds. "We believe people are chosing to shop at Nordstrom because of its excellent service, appealing, edited assortment and comprehensive selection of good, better, best goods."
Analysts expect a 5.7% jump in same-store sales, compared with just a 2.8% increase at rival
Both off-pricers --
-- wowed the Street last month when they reported double-digit sales gains.
"While we believe this illustrates the resilience of the off-price business model and its ability to perform well in both good and bad economic climates, bears would point to the likelihood that TJX benefitted from pack-away inventory that it has stored since 2008's horrendous holiday selling period," Tunick wrote.
TJX recently announced plans to repurchase $900 million to $1 billion in stock next year.
For January, analysts are calling for a 7.8% gain at TJX and a 7.5% increase at Ross Stores.
"We believe companies like TJX could fall back in favor given
TJX's extremely cheap valuation, stable business model, hedge against a potential 'double dip' economic downturn and, in TJX's, case an international square footage story well," Tunick wrote.
-- Reported by Jeanine Poggi in New York.
Follow TheStreet.com on
and become a fan on
Copyright 2009 TheStreet.com Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.