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  • Jennifer Marks

Glimmers of Hope

Wal-Mart says home is hot. J.C. Penney and Big Lots each say home is stabilizing. Family Dollar says home is hanging in there.

A series of announcements over the final two weeks of last month paired up an unexpected drop in unemployment and news from The Conference Board that consumers were more upbeat about the future in April.

Green shoots, yes, but when you pick through the caveats and you'll find it's still pretty bad — it's just no longer hideous.

"I wouldn't say at this point the home business is healthy and ready to go out and run a marathon," said JCP's Ken Hicks, president and chief merchandising officer.

Big Lots' Steve Fishman, chairman, president and ceo: "It is not good, and I don't want to give anyone the impression that we're really happy with it. But it is not nearly as bad as it had been actually in the last 12 to 18 months."

Vendors by and large concur. Replenishment levels remain well below par and inventories are expected to stay low through the balance of the year. At least.

Still, stabilization is good. It's hopeful. Hearing two large retailers talk about it brings to mind something an industry exec said during the last recession: "I can plan for good times. I can plan for bad times. What I can't plan for is uncertainty."

Knowing for certain that business will remain tough, some operations are quietly winding down while others are shopping. Potential sellers have gotten more realistic about what their outfits are worth, according to a handful of potential buyers I spoke with during market.

Such is not the case at retail, where the expectation of higher margins and lower wholesale costs continues apace.

It feels foolhearty to get too optimistic too fast. Retail stocks are still surging and tumbling at the whim of each day's news. President Obama's assertion that the economy can no longer be sustained by shopping and financial instruments sounds more like a statement of reality than a prescription. Some ceos — J.C.Penney's among them — have recently acknowledged the good old days of off-the-hook consumerism are done.

In the meantime, the industry rebuilds. The first step to the home business being better is that it stop being an absolute disaster. Looks like we're making progress.

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