The majority of apparel retailers booked comparable store sales gains in March

The majority of apparel retailers booked comparable store sales gains in March

While the earlier Easter this year helped the majority of US apparel retailers to book comparable store sales growth in March, adverse weather conditions, an economic soft patch during the first quarter, and lingering effects of the West Coast ports labour dispute weighed on overall results.

According to first figures from Retail Metrics, comparable store sales for the US retail sector as a whole edged up 0.3% in March, missing its expectations for a third consecutive month.

When including Gap Inc's better-than-expected 2% gain, which came in after the market closed yesterday (9 April), the research firm said growth rose to 0.4%. However, this is the weakest monthly comparable store sales increase since November 2012.

Nonetheless, Retail Metrics president Ken Perkins said: "April sales are likely to look weak primarily due to the Easter shift, but we expect sales to look better as we head into May and the summer."

Winners and losers
All but one of the apparel retailers reporting monthly comparable store sales booked increases in March.

L Brands continues to be the stand-out performer, booking another "impressive" gain, with merchandise margins up year-on-year. However, the company guided April comparable store sales to be flat to down low-single digits.

Two other high performers were Cato Corp and Stein Mart, both of which have a heavy presence in the south, which experienced better weather conditions.

"March sales were favourably impacted by the shift of Easter from mid-April last year to early April this year," said Cato chairman, president and CEO John Cato. April sales, however, are likely to be impacted, he added. The company continues to expected first-quarter earnings per share to range from US$1.00-1.03.

Stein Mart shares the same view that April sales will be impacted by the shift in peak spring selling weeks. Geographically, most regions had high single or double-digit comparable store sales growth, while the northeast experienced a mid-single digit increase.

Meanwhile, Gap Inc booked a 14% increase in comparable store sales at Old Navy, while its namesake brand reported a 7% decline – its 11th consecutive monthly fall, and Banana Republic saw a drop of 3%.

CFO Sabrina Simmons said: "We are especially pleased with the strong customer response to Old Navy during this peak spring shopping month, and we remain focused on the steps necessary to drive improved product consistency across our entire portfolio."

The Buckle, however, missed forecasts with its 0.5% fall, the only company to report a decline.

March sales overview
Action sportswear and footwear retailer Zumiez booked a 5.5% increase in comparable store sales for the five weeks to 4 April. The company, which operates 610 stores, said net sales increased 1.1% to $70.7m from $63.6m in the same period of last year.

Denim specialist The Buckle saw comparable store sales, for stores open at least one year, edge down 0.5%. Net sales rose 1.7% to $108.5m from $106.6m for the company which operates 462 stores.

At value-priced fashion retailer Cato, March comparable store sales increased 12%. The owner of the Cato, Versona and It's Fashion brands said net sales grew 15% to $117m from $102m a year ago.

L Brands, which owns the Victoria's Secret, Pink and La Senza brands, reported a 6% rise in net sales to $981.2m from $923.7m last year. Comparable store sales increased 9% during the five week period, and were positively impacted by the earlier Easter this year by 3-4 points.

Off-price fashion retailer Stein Mart saw comparable store sales grow 11.2%. The company, which operates 270 stores said net sales reached $155.8m, up 14.2% from $136.3m the year before.

For Gap, March comparable store sales increased 2%. The San Francisco-based retailer, which operates more than 3,300 stores, saw net sales climb 1% to $1.53bn from $1.51bn last year.