The nation's retailers posted highly variable June sales yesterday, giving no clear signal about the direction of the economy.
Overall, the results appeared to be stronger than those for May, a difficult month for the industry, said Budd Bugatch, research director at Ferris Baker Watts in Baltimore. "I'm not going to say the boom is here, but I think this is more positive," he said.
In some ways, it was a strange month in retailing, one in which "tortoises" such as Hechinger Co. and Caldor outpaced the giant "hare" of the industry, Wal-Mart Stores.
Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, posted an 8 percent gain in sales at stores that were also open a year ago. That would have been a strong comparable-sales result for most retailers, but coming from Wal-Mart, which typically reports gains in double digits, it was an indicator of the overall weakness of the retail economy.
The most notable loser was Sears, Roebuck and Co., which took a public relations beating last month after charges were raised in California and New Jersey that its automotive shops were charging customers for unnecessary repairs. Sears posted a 2.6 percent decline in comparable-store sales as overall automotive group sales fell about 10 percent -- enough to offset gains in apparel and home office equipment, the company said.
Another large retailer that stumbled in June was The Limited. The Columbus, Ohio-based apparel merchant continued a string weak performances with a 4 percent drop in comparable-store sales.
For other retailers, June was a busy month at the cash registers.
At Landover-based Hechinger Co., which recently lowered prices at its Baltimore-Washington stores, comparable-store sales soared 12 percent and total sales jumped 23 percent compared with June 1991. "That's the best they've done in a long time," Mr. Bugatch said.
Caldor Corp., a Norwalk, Conn.-based discount department store chain, also posted unusually strong results. The company showed an 11.6 percent gain in comparable-store sales, citing ,, strength in apparel and hard goods.
Joppa-based Merry-Go-Round Enterprises, which has staggered through a long string of negative sales comparisons, ended up on the positive side in June. Comparable-store sales were up only 1 percent, but Mr. Bugatch said that could be viewed as a sign that the company has "turned the corner." He noted that the company, whose business began turning down last July, faces easier comparisons ahead.