Updated from 9:03 a.m. EDT
Mixed signals emanated from the retail sector in March, with chilly weather and high gasoline prices driving uneven results.
The International Council of Shopping Centers reported that overall same-store sales, a key metric measuring sales at stores open at least a year, rose 4.1% in March from a year earlier, based on a survey of more than 70 chains.
The results fell within ICSC's estimated range, which called for a gain of between 3.5% and 4.5%. The ICSC's chief economist and director of research, Mike Niemera, said the performance was inflated by an early Easter.
"On the surface, this performance looks good, next to the 4.7% gains in February and 3.6% in January. But it is probably overstated due to the Easter shift," Niemera said. "We're probably seeing a slower pace of sales in March, and that is likely to continue in April."
The world's largest retailer,
, reported better-than-expected sales for March but guided earnings lower.
Wal-Mart said March same-store sales rose 4.3% from a year ago, beating the unofficial Wall Street consensus estimate of 4.2%. The results reflected a 4.8% rise in same-store sales at its flagship Wal-Mart Stores and a 2.1% increase at Sam's Club. Even with the beat, however, Wal-Mart said first-quarter earnings will be at the low end of its previous guidance of 56 cents to 58 cents a share. Analysts were forecasting 57 cents a share.
Wal-Mart's chief competitor,
, posted an 8.2% jump in same-store sales for the month, surpassing Wall Street's expectations and hitting the upper end of the company's guidance.
"While we believe these results should be considered in the context of this year's earlier Easter holiday, our better-than-expected sales performance in February and March gives us confidence that we will meet or exceed our first quarter profit plan," Target said.
said its March comps fell by 4%, well short of estimates. Its net sales also decreased compared to the same month last year, down 1% to $1.48 billion.
Elsewhere, divergent results from specialty retailers failed to resolve the debate about whether this spring's difficult comparisons would prove a Waterloo for the sector after two years of scorched earth. Some were outstanding, others were lukewarm.
Among the specialty titans,
( AEOS) said March same-store sales soared 29.2% from a year ago, about 9 percentage points better than expected. The company also upped first-quarter earnings guidance to 30 cents to 31 cents a share from its previous estimate of 26 cents or 27 cents a share.
Abercrombie & Fitch
also posted a typically supercharged month, saying March comps soared 21% from a year ago, compared with estimates of about 14%. Overall sales were $227.5 million, up 34% from last year.
Several other chains where investors are used to double-digit comps had a less-caffeinated month -- even if many were in line with forecasts. Pacific Sunwear's same-store sales rose 4.8% from a year ago, missing targets.
said March same-store sales rose 6.8% from a year ago; goth gear specialist
( HOTT) said March same-store sales rose 5.3%; and over-35 women's clothier
said comps rose 7.8% from a year ago.
Several larger chains struggled.
said March same-store sales rose just 0.1% from a year ago, compared with consensus expectations of about 4%. And
reported a 1.7% decline in March same-store sales, compared with analyst forecasts for a 1% decline. Both Penney and AnnTaylor affirmed first-quarter guidance.
also missed Wall Street same-store estimates.
( FD) said its comps rose 3.4% in March, beating expectations. Having recently struck a deal to acquire its main competitor,
May Department Stores
( MAY), Federated said its total sales climbed 3.4% to $1.36 billion for the five weeks ended April 2, up from $1.31 billion a year earlier. May reported that its comps dropped 10.8% for the month.
Results from luxury retailers fell short of estimates.
said March comps rose 3.4%, as higher catalog and online sales failed to make up for a sluggish sales month in its stores.
said its comps were up 2.3% for the month.
At the low end,
beat estimates, reporting March same-store sales were up 4.2%.