A late Easter and a cold March brought a parade of chilly sales reports from the nation's major retailers yesterday, but analysts discounted last month's figures as potentially misleading.
Clothing store chains posted especially discouraging numbers. The Gap, a perennial high-flier, skidded to a 3 percent sales decline at stores that were also open a year ago. By that same closely watched indicator -- comparable-store sales -- The Limited was down 8 percent and Joppa-based Merry-Go-Round was down 12 percent.
Department store numbers were only slightly better. St. Louis-based May Department Stores showed a 4.7 percent drop in comparable-store sales, while Neiman Marcus recorded a 4.6 percent decline.
Even discounters, which have prospered amid the recession as consumers became obsessed with bargains, showed lackluster results. Kmart, the nation's No. 2 retailer, was off 0.7 percent in comparable-store sales. No. 1 Wal-Mart, which routinely racks up double-digit gains, was up only 6 percent.
The analysts' reaction: So what? "You have to take it with a whole shaker of salt,not a few grains," said Guy W. Ford, vice president of Richmond-based Scott & Stringfellow.
Last year, Easter came early; this year it comes late -- presumably pushing sales of spring outfits into April. If March is cold, as it was this year over much of the country, consumers put off purchases of swimsuits and garden tools. And the Persian Gulf war, which was still distorting the retail market last spring, continues to be a wild card.
"You really have to look at March-April combined to get a sense of what's going on," said Paul Bienstock, an analyst at Moran & Associates in Greenwich, Conn.