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General retail sales steady for March

WASHINGTON — Sales at general-merchandise stores held their own in March, compared with other channels of retail. At least, that's the first-glance interpretation of retail sales figures released two weeks ago by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

According to the Commerce Department, general-merchandise stores tallied $26.6 billion in sales in March, 0.4 percent above the February total of $26.5 billion. Considering that retail channels such as auto dealers, building-materials stores and gas stations had a down month of March, the general merchandisers look fairly healthy in comparison.

The reality may be otherwise. First, Commerce's February figure was revised downward from the initially reported $26.7 billion. Secondly, in terms of the more-realistic same-store sales figures (half of the chains tracked by Home Textiles Today lost ground in comp-store numbers; see last week's issue), March was a decidedly less healthy month for this sector of the economy.

Commerce said, overall, U.S. retailers posted $274.1 billion in sales last month, off 0.2 percent from the $274.8 billion in sales from February. Looking at the loss leaders mentioned earlier, gas stations' March sales plummeted 2 percent, sales at the building-materials dealers dropped 1.2 percent and the car dealers (accounting for nearly one-quarter of the nation's total) saw their sales slip 0.8 percent.

Analysts of the retail sector found the report's figures troubling. Robert Podorefsky, analyst with Fleet Bank, noted that on a year-over-year basis, U.S. retail sales rose just 1.9 percent — "obviously awful news," in his assessment. "However, it is not surprising given the robust and stellar consumer demand situation that existed in March of 2000."

Podorefsky also echoed many chain-store executives, who blamed their lagging results on the poor March weather. Another analyst, Michael Niemira of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Ltd., also brought up the poor climate — but added that "the broad economic weakness also was taking a significant toll on spending."

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