Discounters in driver’s seat for May sales 

New York – If ever there were a haves and have-nots month, May 2008 would qualify. The list of comparable-store gainers, running from Costco up 9.0% and Ross Stores up 7.0% to TJX Cos. up 2.0% and Family Dollar up 1.8% – and Wal-Mart square in the middle with a 4.0% gain – spells out the formula for success in the ongoing retail climate.

In fact, Wal-Mart even reported that its home products showed a comp-store gain in May – the first such uptick for the category in more than two years.

The comp-losers list, meanwhile, smacked merchandisers right in the middle. Each and every department store in the habit of reporting monthly sales had a negative-comp story to tell, joined by upscale mass merchant Target.

Target, posting a 0.7% comp decline that president and ceo Gregg Steinhafel noted, “was in line with our planned range,” was out of step with Wal-Mart, where consumers seemed to flood into supercenters to buy everyday consumables – at the expense of retailers elsewhere trying to sell fashion goods.

That trend is not expected to change anytime soon: Looking ahead, Target projected June comps from -2% to 0%, against its year-ago comp gain of 3.3%.

Among category sales, home continues to stagnate.

“Sales in the home and furniture category were significantly below trend,” Dillard’s said in its statement, reporting overall comps down 7.0%.

“Gifts, linens and ladies’ career were below company trend,” said Stein Mart, which trailed all HTT-covered chains with a 12.4% comp fall in May.

“Textiles and women’s apparel were the most challenging,” said Jim Famalette, chairman and ceo of Western department store chain Gottschalks, where May comps were down 8.6%.

“Most home categories continued to experience weaker sales,” read the JCPenney release. The 1,074-unit department store operator noted its 4.4% comp decline was in line with projections.

However – there was this glimmer: “The home area showed its first comparable store sales increase in more than two years.” That remark was included in the Wal-Mart report, which nonetheless focused on groceries, pharmacy and consumer electronics. “In a difficult economic environment for home, the category had positive comparable sales due to an emphasis on presentation of branded merchandise and Mother’s Day,” Wal-Mart concluded.

And this grace note, from Kohl’s: “Home, footwear and men’s performed better than the company for the month.” However, the month at the 957-store mid-tier chain saw an overall comp drop of 7.2%.

Many retailers reported soft sales in seasonal categories – a warning, in effect, that promotional activity is about to swing up yet again.

“Seasonal categories dependent on weather were soft,” was the Wal-Mart takeaway.

“Seasonal categories were challenged throughout ladies’ ready to wear, men’s, shoes, accessories, and intimate apparel,” said Tony Buccina, vice chairman and president – merchandising, Bon-Ton Stores, which recorded a 9.9% comp drop in May.

The Johnson Redbook Same Store Sales Index (SSI) showed a 2.6% comp gain for May among the 39 mostly softlines retailers tracked. In the department store segment, however, the SSI showed a 3.6% comp decline. This reversal came one month after that group of mid-tier and upstairs chains (ranging from Kohl’s to Neiman Marcus) had logged its first comp gain since November.

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