• Andrea Lillo

Retailers content with July sales

New York — Keeping expectations low as the slow economy continues, most retailers were satisfied with their results in July.

Cited as a "transitional" month for some, the month was a mix of clearing out the summer merchandise as well as beginning to bring in the new fall items, with high hopes for Back-to-School.

"July was another challenging month as the retail environment continues to be difficult," said Alan Lacy, chairman and ceo of Sears, which saw its total sales and comp sales percentages both dip in July.

Other retailers had to compare this month's numbers with a strong performance last year, affecting the results even further. "Considering last year's double-digit same store sales gain of 18.2 percent and the continuing difficult economic climate, sales for the month met our expectations," said Marvin Girouard, chairman and ceo of Pier 1 Imports.

Double-digit growth wasn't uncommon this month in the percentage of total sales.

Costco, Dollar General, Family Dollar, Gottschalks, Kohl's, Ross Stores, Target, TJX Cos., and Wal-Mart all experienced impressive gains this month. Kohl's also achieved a double-digit comp store sales increase of 14.3%.

Numerous retailers experimented with changes in merchandise and presentation to spur sales. Ross Dress for Less has spent the past few months increasing its nationally recognized name brand product and adding more diversity in its home assortments, among other initiatives, said Michael Balmuth, vp and ceo. He attributed the company's "stronger than planned business," which was a whopping 16.3 percent growth in sales and 5.0 percent growth in comp-store sales in July, to "healthy sales of full-priced fall season merchandise combined with better than expected grand-opening business in the 13 new stores we opened in June and July."

He added, "We are very pleased with the solid improvement in sales trends we realized in July despite the continued difficult economic and competitive environment."

Dillard's, which has seen challenging times, reported one of the highest comp-store sales increases among the group for the month. "The company has turned around despite the challenging conditions," said analyst David Lamer, of Ferris, Baker Watts. "If you were to walk through a Dillard's store this year and compare it to last year, the differences are night and day. Inventory levels are dramatically better managed this year, assortments from status brands are much more focused and tight, and presentations of high-margin private-label merchandise are well positioned to attract frugal customers during these uncertain economic times."

Retailers also listed the home area as a strong performer for the month. Wal-Mart's Stores named domestics as an above-average category for July, with the West and Northeast ringing in the strongest sales. Sam's Club also listed domestics on top.

"Sales of textiles, furniture and mattresses in our home division remained solid," said Jim Famalette, president and ceo, Gottschalks, which had a total monthly sales increase of almost 22 percent.

For Pier 1 Imports, said Girouard, "Sales were generally consistent across the U.S. and Canada, with the Southeast and Northwest areas showing the best performance, reflecting regional positive economic trends."

Girouard continued, "July is traditionally a transition month for the company. We completed our clearance promotions with the End-of-the-Summer Sale and began receiving new fall and Back-to-School merchandise in the stores, which is being well received by our customers. We continue to expand to new markets, opening seven new stores in July with plans to open 11 in August."

Saks tweaked its operations in anticipation for the second half. "We have continued to carefully manage our inventories by monitoring our receipt flow and executing necessary markdowns, and we begin the third quarter with our inventories current and at appropriate levels," said Brad Martin, chairman and ceo. In addition, Saks is "diligently managing operating expenses, reducing capital expenditures and exiting underproductive locations and businesses (as evidenced by our recent Palm Beach, FL, and White Plains, NY, store closing announcements and our restructuring of Saks Direct). Our outlook for the second half of the year remains cautious, and we will continue to take proactive, necessary actions."

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