Retailers' Sales Rise Most in 4 Years, Overcoming Job Concerns

U.S. retailers’ sales are growing at the fastest pace in four years, a sign consumers may be overcoming concern about unemployment and depressed home values.

Sales probably expanded at an average monthly rate of 4 percent in the first five months of the retail fiscal year that began Jan. 31, the biggest gain since 2006, the International Council of Shopping Centers trade group said in advance of its June report tomorrow. Nordstrom Inc. and Kohl’s Corp. are among chains that will report June sales increases at stores open at least a year, according to analysts’ estimates.

Retailers may have bucked last month’s drop in consumer confidence that threatens to temper the rebound. The year-to- date growth in sales shows that spending, a key driver of the U.S. economy, is faring better than many investors are betting, said Michael Niemira, the New York-based ICSC’s chief economist.

“The sales results have been uneven, which makes people worry about the recovery,” Niemira said in a telephone interview. “If you look at the underlying growth rate, it suggests a relatively healthy, moderate pace of spending for the remainder of the year.”

In the current fiscal year, the ICSC’s monthly number swung as high as 9 percent in March, then receded to a 0.8 percent gain in April, partly because of an earlier Easter.

Photographer: JB Reed/Bloomberg

Sales probably expanded at an average monthly rate of 4 percent in the first five months of the retail fiscal year that began Jan. 31, the biggest gain since 2006. Close

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Photographer: JB Reed/Bloomberg

Sales probably expanded at an average monthly rate of 4 percent in the first five months of the retail fiscal year that began Jan. 31, the biggest gain since 2006.

June sales probably came in at the high end of a projected 3 percent to 4 percent range, the ICSC said today.

Luxury, Wholesale

The sales growth has been driven by a 4.2 percent increase at wholesale clubs, excluding gasoline sales, and an 8 percent jump at luxury chains this year, according to the ICSC. Wealthy consumers tend to “come out of hibernation” first after a recession, and the clubs are luring value-seeking customers, Niemira said.

“Our customers in the U.S. are feeling more confident than a year ago, tied to improved levels of net worth,” Tiffany & Co. Chief Financial Officer James Fernandez told an investors’ conference June 30. “It’s probably also true, and not surprising, that economic issues and stock-market volatility still affect consumer psychology.”

The potential spoiler remains a lack of U.S. jobs. Employment fell in June for the first time this year, reflecting a drop in federal census workers and a smaller-than-forecast gain in the private sector, the Labor Department said July 2.

Unemployment was one reason Deborah L. Weinswig, a retail analyst at Citigroup Inc., lowered her stock price forecasts and earnings estimates for Macy’s Inc. and other retailers.

“We are tempering our outlook for retail sales for the back half of 2010 based on mounting pressures against the consumer,” the New York-based analyst wrote in a July 5 report. She also cited a lack of consumer credit, less home equity, and tax increases.

Wary Investors

The Standard & Poor’s 500 retail index rose 2.4 percent today. The 31-member index has declined 4.4 percent this year after surging 47 percent in 2009.

“Investors seem to have given up on the consumers,” Bill Dreher, an analyst with Deutsche Bank AG in New York, said on a July 1 conference call with clients. “Most of our retail operators are very bullish.”

June sales reports will meet or beat analysts’ estimates, and the positive comparable-sales trend will continue, Dreher predicted. Retailers are well-positioned for profitability, with inventories and operating expenses tightly controlled, he said.

Nordstrom will report a same-store sales increase of 11 percent for June and Kohl’s and Macy’s will post gains of 8 percent, Dreher estimated.

Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of the U.S. economy. The Conference Board’s confidence index slumped to 52.9 in June from a revised 62.7 in May, the New York-based private research group said June 29. Same-store sales are a key indicator of a retailer’s growth because they exclude results from new and closed locations.

Year-Earlier Declines

The chains’ numbers don’t tell the whole picture because some retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest, and New York-based Tiffany, don’t post figures monthly, and the reports don’t include all spending online.

The industry’s latest gains look better partly because they are coming off steep declines a year earlier, and while the growth rates have improved, many retailers haven’t recovered their earlier sales volumes, Niemira said.

Sales in 2010 will grow 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent at the more than 30 chains it tracks, the ICSC predicted in mid-May, faster than its January projection of 3 percent to 3.5 percent. An increase within the latest forecasted range would be the largest since 2006. Those sales dropped 1.6 percent last year.

“These growth rates are the best we’ve seen in several years, after a multiyear slump,” Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners LLC, a consulting firm in New Canaan, Connecticut, said in a July 2 telephone interview. “Some of the analysts get caught up in the month-to-month comparable sales, and they can be misleading.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Cotten Timberlake in Washington at ctimberlake@bloomberg.net

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