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April sees same-store sales drop

NEW YORK — Even though the weather improved in April, the nation's major chains remained mired in a poor business climate.

Nine of the chains followed by Home Textiles Today in its monthly chain sales report posted drops in their same store sales last month. Many of these declines were huge — such as May Co.'s 8.3 percent plummet in comp-store results and the identical 8 percent declines reported by both Elder-Beerman and ShopKo stores.

Clearly, the slide in consumer confidence continues to affect store purchases. As reported two weeks ago, the consumer confidence index for April fell to levels not seen since the recession of a decade ago.

Still, the April chain results had some glimmers of hope. Most particularly, JCPenney had its best same-store month in years, boosting its comp-store sales 3.8 percent. The company cited strong sales in women's apparel, women's accessories and home furnishings as drivers for this increase.

For most of the rest of the chain gang, April marked a laggard beginning to retail's second quarter. Other decliners included Dillard's and the Marshall Field's division of Target Corp., both of which said their same-store sales fell 6 percent in the month.

The Value City store division saw its comp-store checkouts fall 5.3 percent. Pamida, the ShopKo division, posted a 3.2 percent drop in its same-store

numbers.

Even among chains that were able to grow their same-store numbers, April was a cruel month. James Zimmerman, chairman and chief executive officer of Federated Department Stores (which picked up a meager 0.8 percent in comp-store sales), said April sales were at "the low end of the company's expectations, with a strong last week of the month helping sales recover from weakness in the first three weeks."

Alan J. Lacy, Sears' chairman and CEO, characterized the April retail environment as "challenging." Sears pushed its same-store sales up 1.7 percent last month. "In the full-line stores," Lacy said, "double-digit increases in lawn and garden, and solid increases in appliances, footwear and sporting goods were offset by decreases in other categories."

Five of the chains were able to push their same-store sales above the 5 percent mark, usually considered the good-results benchmark for monthly comp-store results. After seeing its same-store results drop in March, Kohl's returned to its usual strong position with a 12.7 percent same-store gain last month.

Expressing his pleasure over this result, Kohl's chief executive officer, Larry Montgomery, said the pickup was on top of the chain's 8.4 percent gain in April of last year. Montgomery noted that spring merchandise was "the strongest sales performer," although he added that "all markets performed well."

Two of the other top gainers among the same-store parade were the chains in the Wal-Mart family. Sam's Club finished April with an 8.3 percent leap in its comp-store sales, and Wal-Mart stores chimed in with a 6.1 percent gain.

These two were by far the biggest performers in the discount and warehouse-club channels. In the latter, Costco posted a 6 percent increase in same-store sales last month. Among the other two national mass merchants, Target reported that its comp-store sales increased 2 percent, while Kmart's edged up 1.1

percent.

Chuck Conaway, Kmart's chairman and CEO, noted that the chain has met or exceeded expectations for its same-store sales for six consecutive months. Conaway said Kmart is continuing to reduce its reliance on advertising and improve its in-store execution, with in-stock levels now at "an all-time high," he said.

Looking at the month overall, William Ford, senior economic advisor for TeleCheck Services, Inc., said, "The Easter holiday fell two weeks earlier during April this year, and consumers also had one less weekend day to shop."

Yet Ford's assessment of April retail was that same-store sales were "surprisingly high. Retail sales were moderately strong across the country and consistent with recent reports that the economy continues to grow, albeit at a slower pace."

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