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Retail sales remain off-target

NEW YORK — Extending a long and disappointing slump, retail sales remained substantially under plan during March, with a same-store gain of 2.2 percent falling way short of a targeted gain of 3.2 percent, according to the widely watched Redbook Retail sales Average.

As in recent months, debt-heavy and penny-pinching consumers did most of their shopping at the nation's discounters, where sales advanced by 3.1 percent, compared to an anemic 0.2 percent increase at department stores and chains. The composite Redbook average rose by 2.2 percent, compared to a target of 3.2 percent.

In the case of discounters and department stores alike, reality, once again, was no match for expectations, and the 3.1 percent increase recorded by discounters came up shy of a target of 4.1 percent. And the virtually flat performance at the nation's broadline retailers - traditional department stores and chains - fell short of a target of 1.3 percent.

"Sales were mixed to slightly firmer in the fifth and final week of March, making for a disappointing, though not particularly surprising, end to a sub-performing month," said Redbook analyst Catlin Levis. "Warm weather was a primary sales driver in the fifth week. Retailers reported strength in a range of seasonal product categories, from spring apparel to fitness equipment, outdoor and gardening tools. Discount stores saw firm business in consumer basics like food and household supplies as well as home-related goods."

Going forward, said Levis, "Following a below-plan March, our preliminary target for April is year-over-year growth of 3.3 percent, which would result in a month-to-month gain against March of 1.6 percent. The Easter holiday, a catalyst for spring business in general, is expected to make its presence felt" during the first week of April, a four-week month on the retail calendar, ending May 5.

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