Moderate retail sales growth in February exceeded some expectations even though it represented a sharp deceleration from January.

retail sales, February, National Retail Federation, NRF, Department of Commerce, Bloomberg, Paul Dales, Capital Economics, Matthew Shay, Charles Holley, Target Corp., Macy’s Inc., Nordstrom Inc., International Council of Shopping Centers, Costco Wholesale Corp., David Sherwood, Fred’s Inc., Bruce Efird, Alco Stores Inc.

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Retail sales increase modestly in February

March 25th, 2013

NEW YORK – Moderate retail sales growth in February exceeded some expectations even though it represented a sharp deceleration from January.

According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), retail sales excluding autos, gas stations and restaurants rose 0.5% unadjusted year over year, and edged up 0.7% from January on a seasonally adjusted basis. Department of Commerce figures, which include autos, gas stations and restaurants, showed a 4.6% year-over-year adjusted increase and a 1.1% gain over January. The 1.1% sequential increase was the highest in five months and exceeded all forecasts among analysts and economists polled by Bloomberg.

Some considered the numbers adequate grounds for cautious optimism. "This all suggests that the hit to spending from the payroll tax cut and higher gasoline prices, which reduce the amount of cash available to spend on other items, hasn’t been too bad," Paul Dales, senior economist at Capital Economics, told the Associated Press. "The recent pickup in both employment and earnings growth bodes well for consumption growth later in the year, too."

However, NRF president and chief executive officer Matthew Shay took a more guarded stance. "Our consumer research consistently shows a cautious shopper that is making tough spending decisions based upon economic uncertainties, lower paychecks and higher prices for things such as gas," he said in a statement. "This is particularly true among those making $50,000 or less a year. While retail sales numbers indicate good momentum for the economy, consumers with less earning power may continue to face ongoing pressure and retail sales will encounter further challenges as sequestration takes full effect in March."

Walmart, which no longer reports monthly sales, continues to see a pressured customer, according to chief financial officer Charles Holley. "In the United States the customer continues to be concerned about the economy, about jobs, about cost of living, about inflation of gas prices," he told attendees at a recent investors conference. "And for the first time we’ve seen in a while, they are concerned about taxes. We haven’t seen a large or dramatic change in our sales patterns related to increased payroll taxes. We think any slowdown we’ve seen has been primarily related to the delay of tax refunds."

February saw three other major chains, Target Corp., Macy’s Inc. and Nordstrom Inc., drop out of the dwindling ranks of retailers reporting monthly sales. A group of 13 retailers tracked by the International Council of Shopping Centers reported an average year-over-year increase in comparable-store sales of 1.7%, compared with a 4.5% increase in January.

As is so often the case, Costco Wholesale Corp. performed on an entirely different level, posting an impressive 6% rise in comparable-store sales that was driven by an identical increase among its U.S. warehouses. The performance beat the 5.1% gain projected by analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters.

Costco’s net sales for the month rose 8% to $7.58 billion. In a pre-recorded conference call director of finance and investor relations David Sherwood said that growth was driven by warehouses in Texas and the Southeast, Northeast and Midwest, while Canada, Taiwan and Mexico were standouts internationally.

Among regional discounters, Memphis-based Fred’s Inc. saw its comparable-store sales decline 1.5% in February while overall sales inched up to $159.2 million from $159 million. "Considering current economic headwinds, including delays encountered with processing tax returns and refunds as well as increased payroll taxes, we were pleased that February sales were within our projected range for the month," commented CEO Bruce Efird in a statement. "General merchandise comparable-store sales were positive for the second consecutive month, reflecting good momentum in new initiatives such as an expanded offering in auto/hardware and our discount tobacco shop."

Efird added that generic drug introductions trimmed 280 basis points from pharmacy comparable-store sales even though script counts continued to grow.

Finally, Abilene-Kan.-based Alco Stores Inc. reported flat same-store sales, although revenue from continuing operations excluding gas rose 3.3% to $36.4 million.