Two industry surveys Tuesday reported conflicting results for March retail sales, ahead of Thursday's onslaught of same-store sales results.

ShopperTrak reported a 1.9% decrease in sales over the same period in 2003, hurt by the economy and cool weather. The decrease follows 12 consecutive months of positive results, ShopperTrak said.

"Over the last couple of weeks, with the listless job market and ever rising gas prices, in addition to rather unfavorable weather across the country, consumers seem to be spending less," said Michael Niemira, chief economist and director of research for the International Council of Shopping Centers. "However, consumer spending is likely to rebound, given tax refunds and a new wave of mortgage refinancing throughout April and May."

ShopperTrak's national retail estimate snapshot is derived from the U.S. Commerce Department's general merchandise, apparel, furniture, sporting goods, electronics, hobby, books and other related store-sales statistics, as well as ShopperTrak's proprietary devices, which are installed at the entrances of 30,000 nationwide retail stores. The devices are linked to the sales registers and automatically count store traffic and sales. The figures are sent to a central server, which tabulates the overall sales percentage for a given period.

In a separate report, the National Retail Federation, an industry trade organization, said its executive opinion survey found that consumers spent steadily in March, though less than February's levels. The survey's retail sector performance index (RSPI) grew at a slightly slower pace in March with a reading of 58.3 points, up 16.3 points from a year ago, and down 4.5 points from February's reading of 62.8.

The RSPI measures retail executives' evaluations of monthly sales, customer traffic, the average transaction per customer, employment, inventories and a six-month-ahead sales outlook. The RSPI is based on a scale of zero to 100 with a reading of 50 meaning normal.

"Consumers remain enthusiastic about shopping as they begin to receive tax returns," said Tracy Mullin, NRF President and CEO. "Retailers are trying to give consumers every reason to spend those checks at their stores with special incentives and promotions."

But increasing gas prices could weigh on consumers going into the summer months, Mullin said. "Rising gas prices represent an additional tax on consumers' incomes by costing them billions of dollars that could be spent elsewhere."

Meanwhile, March same-store sales -- widely seen as a retail benchmark which tallies the change in sales at stores open at least a year -- will be released on Wednesday and Thursday. Analysts are expecting about a 4% to 5% increase industry-wide over 2003's levels.

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