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 a better gauge of a retailer's performance than total 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 midwinter funk that sent the Conference Board's consumer confidence figures plunging to an year low last month.
The February figures, like January's, are being compared with monthly figures a year earlier when the country was preoccupied with the gulf war and retail 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.
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.
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.