Signs of Life in March Same-Store Sales

"Overall, home was the best performing division" — these words, rarely heard since 2007, were included in the March sales statement by JCPenney, part of a generally less-disappointing-than-expected day of monthly reports by retailers.

One could almost hear the sighs of relief as JCPenney stated in its first-quarter outlook: "Management now expects to report a loss in the range of $0.05 to $0.10 per share.... This compares to previous guidance for a loss of $0.20 to $0.30 per share."

Comps at JCP fell 7.2% in March — but this handily beat its guidance for a "low-double digit to mid-teen decrease."

Speaking about his company's successful results with new spring merchandise, JCP chairman and ceo Mike Ullman noted, "The positive response we are receiving is most evident across our women's assortments and increasingly in our home business."

Nor was Penney alone.

At 1,022-store Kohl's, Kevin Mansell, president and ceo, made the comment: "Sales results for March exceeded our expectations. Home outperformed the company from a line-of-business perspective and the Southwest was our strongest performing region." Kohl's posted a comp decline of 4.3%.

That these middle market chains achieved better results — and particularly in home — was a marked turnabout from the general trend that has seen department stores underperform while discount operators have posted consistently stronger results.

Another merchant to raise its Q1 guidance was off-pricer Ross Stores, lifting the outlook from the former range of 56–61 cents to 68–70 cents EPS. This was based, said vice chairman, president and ceo Michael Balmuth, mainly on better-than expected sales volume in March and increased same-store sales projections for April. The Ross comp gain in March was 3.0%.

Rival TJX Cos. stopped short of raising Q1 guidance, but president and ceo Carol Meyrowitz did say the company is "now anticipating that our first quarter earnings per share will be at or slightly above the high end of our previously forecasted $.32–$.38 range." The March comp gain of 2% "exceeded our expectations," she said.

This was similar to the statement by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. that things are running at the high end of its expectations. At Walmart U.S., with a comp gain of 0.6% for the month, the company noted: "Health and wellness, home, and grocery led comparable store sales growth for the March period. Home and 'do-it-yourself' categories had mid-single digit comparable store sales gains."

At Target, where comps fell 6.3%, chairman, president and ceo Gregg Steinhafel said, "March sales were modestly better than our planned range." Target comps were strongest in non-discretionary categories, the retailer declared, while both apparel and home suffered low-double-digit comp declines. Within home, housewares comps were stronger than decorative home.

Not every chain joined the party. Things were a bit tougher at Macy's Inc., where the 840-unit retailer issued a tersely worded statement that its March comp decline of 9.2% was largely due to the Easter shift. One positive: online sales grew by 17.9% in March and 17.1% year to date.

For March, the Johnson Redbook Same-store Sales Index (SSI) was down 2.2% following a 0.2% drop in February and a 1.8% drop in January. Two-thirds of the retailers tracked in the 36-company SSI posted negative comps.

March Sales for Key Retailers
Five weeks ended April 4a(dollar amounts in millions)

a. a-Reporting periods vary from chain to chain.
b-Costco: 5 weeks and 31 weeks ended April 5.
c-Duckwall-ALCO: 5 weeks and 9 weeks ended April 5.
d-Wal-Mart: 5 weeks and 9 weeks ended April 3; Int'l not included in comps.
The Bon-Ton Stores $245.0 $274.0 (10.6) (11.2)
Costco b $6,390.0 $6,570.0 (3.0) (5.0)
Dillard Dept. Stores $376.6 $435.2 (13.0) (12.0)
Duckwall-ALCO c $42.6 $39.3 8.4 3.8
Fred's $175.4 $177.7 (1.0) 1.9
J.C. Penney $1,455.0 $1,538.0 (5.4) (7.2)
Kohl's Corp. $1,433.0 $1,426.0 0.5 (4.3)
Macy's Inc. $1,931.0 $2,142.0 (9.8) (9.2)
Ross Stores $682.0 $633.0 8.0 3.0
Stein Mart $135.3 $138.6 (2.4) (1.4)
Target Corp. $5,543.0 $5,676.0 (2.3) (6.3)
TJX Cos. $1,700.0 $1,700.0 0.0 2.0
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. d $36,206.0 $36,914.0 (1.9) 0.7
Wal-Mart stores $23,750.0 $23,155.0 2.6 0.6
Sam's Clubs $4,382.0 $4,287.0 2.2 1.3
International $8,074.0 $9,472.0 (14.8) NA
The Bon-Ton Stores $445.1 $491.0 (9.3) (10.1)
Costco b $41,470.0 $41,340.0 0.3 (2.0)
Dillard Dept. Stores $6,739.9 $7,204.9 (6.0) (7.0)
Duckwall-ALCO c $78.1 $70.3 11.2 6.3
Fred's $321.9 $326.8 (2.0) 1.9
JCPenney $2,620.0 $2,794.0 (6.2) (7.9)
Kohl's Corp. $2,439.0 $2,397.0 1.8 (3.2)
Macy's Inc. $3,508.0 $3,879.0 (9.6) (8.9)
Ross Stores $1,158.0 $1,077.0 8.0 2.0
Stein Mart $219.4 $234.8 (6.6) (5.8)
Target Corp. $9,915.0 $9,788.0 (1.3) (5.3)
TJX Cos. $2,930.0 $2,950.0 (1.0) 1.0
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. d $66,224.0 $66,103.0 0.2 2.4
Wal-Mart stores $43,821.0 $41,715.0 5.0 2.6
Sam's Clubs $7,854.0 $7,654.0 2.6 1.6
International $14,549.0 $16,734.0 (13.1) NA

Winners and Losers
Same-store sales % change

Duckwall-ALCO 3.8%
Ross Stores 3.0
TJX Cos. 2.0
Fred's 1.9
Sam's Club 1.3
Walmart U.S. 0.6
Dillard's -12.0%
Bon-Ton -11.2
Macy's Inc. -9.2
JCPenney -7.2
Target -6.3
Costco -5.0
Kohl's -4.3
Stein Mart -1.4

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