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March starts out with a whimper

With consumers still fatigued by war talk and increasingly worried about the economy and the job market, same-store retail sales skidded down during the first week in March, slipping by 0.7 percent, according to the Redbook Retail Sales Average.

And curdling hopes of a retail recovery any time soon, sales are expected to remain soft throughout the rest of the month, hampered by a late Easter holiday that will pull sales into April.

After slipping by 0.2 percent the prior week, sales continued their downward slide moving into the new month. "Many retailers simply noted that traffic was sparse and customers were reluctant to spend," said Redbook analyst Catlin Levis.

With consumers keeping their wallets in their pockets, sales fell by 0.7 percent from year-ago levels, and were down somewhat further, by 0.9 percent, from February.

Consumers continued to shun full-price department stores and high-price deferrable purchases and focused on the necessities, said the Redbook analyst. "Basic consumer goods did better than seasonal goods, putting discount stores ahead of department stores relative to plan after the first week. The discounters were led by food, electronics, household supplies, drugs and consumables, although some reported strength in seasonal apparel categories in regions where the warm weather has arrived."

Sales in department stores continued their inexorable decline, easing off by 3.6 percent, somewhat worse than the projected decline of 3.1 percent. But even discounter stores reported far from robust results, with sales edging ahead just 1.1 percent, slightly behind a target of 1.2 percent.

Skewing year-over-year comparisons, Easter falls three weeks late this year, Levis noted, pushing holiday sales into April. "As a result, to counter the distortion, retailers recommend averaging both March and April comps to produce a combined growth rate," said Levis.

Despite the slow start to the month, "retailers are holding to monthly targets," Levis noted, "looking in particular for improvement in seasonal business as warmer weather draws closer."

Breaking sales out on a regional basis, business was strongest in the Midwest and South Central states.

Redbook Retail Sales Average
First week of March

Week ended 3/8 3/15 3/22 3/29 4/5 Month Target
*Including chain stores and traditional department stores.
Source: Redbook Retail Sales Average, a unit of Instinet, a Reuters company.
Department stores* -3.6 -3.6 -3.1
Discounters 1.1 1.1 1.2
Redbook Average -0.7 -0.7 -0.5


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