Thanks to an early Easter, larger tax refunds and a relatively healthy economy, analysts believe March's same-store sale reports should be just as impressive as January's and February's results. As a result, broad-based strength in all sector subgroups is expected.

Ken Perkins, research analyst at Thomson Financial/First Call, is calling for a 5.7% rise in industrywide same-store sales and thinks there is good potential for an upside surprise.

"A number of factors have converged in the retailers' favor that should lead to robust organic top line-growth," says Perkins, whose survey follows 68 major U.S. retailers.

Most same-store sales reports will be released Thursday morning.

This year, Easter comes one week earlier that last year, pushing holiday-related sales into the March period. Consequently, analysts expect that fact to add 1% to 2% to company results, Perkins said.

He also noted that retail bellwethers Wal-Mart ( WMT) and Target ( TGT) each said weekly same-store sales have tracked in line to above plan. Lastly, many retailers have said inventory levels are strong, which has helped limit promotions.

First Call's same-store sales index had a 4.2% rise in December, a 6% increase in January and a 7.1% rise in February -- all of which exceeded expectations, Perkins said. Results in March 2003 were unchanged from the prior year, mainly due to the start of the war in Iraq.

Mike Niemira, chief economist and director of research at the International Council of Shopping Centers, is expecting an overall 6.5% rise in March's results, which is up from his previous forecast for a 4% to 5% increase. In February, the ICSC's survey showed a 6.7% increase and a 6% increase in January. That compares with a 0.2% decline in March 2003.

"Given that the month faced a very easy comparison with last year and got off to a good strong start, the year-over-year pace of sales for March boomed," predicted Niemira. "Indeed, March year-over-year comp-store sales growth is likely to hit a peak for the year."

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