U.S. consumers might not be buying with confidence, but at least they're buying.
Most large retail chains reported yesterday that they rang up healthy sales increases in February, and almost a dozen reported comparable-store gains in double digits.
Wal-Mart Stores, as it has so often, led the way among the largest retailers with a 20 percent jump in sales at stores that were also open a year ago.
Comparable-store sales are considered abetter gauge of a retailer's performance than total sales, which are skewed by expansion and the tendency of new stores to post misleadingly strong first-year sales.
The February results, coming on the heels of strong gains in January, raised hopes that, whether they realize it or not, consumers are coming out of a funk that sent the Conference Board's consumer confidence figures plunging to an 18-year low last month. Economists agree that without revived consumer spending, no sustained recovery is possible.
The February figures, like January's, are being compared with monthly figures a year earlier when the country was preoccupied with the Persian Gulf war and retails sales suffered.
"You're still seeing the effect of relatively easy" comparisons with a year ago, said Budd Bugatch, research director at Ferris Baker Watts in Baltimore. "We have to get through the March-April time frame" to be sure, he said.
Several retailers said bluntly that they don't expect to duplicate February's performance this month.
"We expect a significantly lower comparable-store sales pace in March as we face much more difficult comparisons," said Richard L.Sharp, Circuit City's president and chief executive officer, whose Richmond, Va.-based company posted a 20 percent gain in February.
Still, Mr. Bugatch said the figures bolster his belief that the economy is coming out of the recession. Among Maryland-based retailers, Hechinger Co. was a standout, racking up a 14 percent gain in comparable-store sales and a 21 percent gain in overall sales to reach a total of $105.2 million in February.
"It's the best results they've had in a long time," Mr. Bugatch said. By comparison, the home-improvement chain recorded a 9 percent decrease in comparable-store sales last February compared with the same month in 1990.
Joppa-based Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc. continued its string of weak quarters with a 3 percent decrease in comparable-store sales, but Mr. Bugatch said that was not as bad as expected. Unlike many companies that were comparing numbers with a weak February 1991, Merry-Go-Round was one of the few large retail companies to post a healthy increase that month -- 11 percent. Total sales in February 1992 were up 16 percent as the chain of specialty clothing stores continued to expand.
February brought some relief to troubled department stores, which had labored through a grim holiday season.
Sears Roebuck & Co., the nation's third-largest retailer, and J.C. Penney Co. Inc., the fifth-largest, reported robust gains of 8.9 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively, in same-store sales.
Federated Department Stores Inc., reporting for the first time since it emerged from bankruptcy last month, reported a 10.2 percent increase.
May Department Stores Co., parent of Hecht's, posted a respectable 4 percent gain.
One of the few disappointing surprises came from The Gap Inc., which posted a 7 percent gain, a fine performance for most retailers but short of expectations for a perennial high-flier in the clothing business.
After the announcement, Gap stock fell $2.375 a share, to $46, in heavy trading, a decline that some analysts viewed as an overreaction.