March a maddening month for merchants

Stores blame early Easter and cooler temperatures for sagging sales in the month. Wal-Mart delivers a mixed picture.

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By Parija B. Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Retailers blamed an early Easter and cooler weather for eroding store sales in March.

Analysts said those two factors, combined with ongoing sluggishness in consumer spending, further exacerbated the damage.

"We had a perfect storm of factors that led to the weak sales last month," said Ken Perkins, president of sales tracking firm Retail Metrics.

"Gas prices are at an all-time high, food prices are going up, the housing market is deteriorating, the credit market is tighter and we've had three straight months of job losses," Perkins said.

That said, April should provide some relief to merchants, he said. "Last April, sales fell 1.8%. So the comparisons are easier. Also, seasonal purchases should get a boost as the weather improves," Perkins said. "We caution that March and April [results] should be seen together."

Sales tracker Thomson Financial, which compares monthly sales results at 36 of the nation's largest retail chains based on analysts' estimates, said more retailers were missing rather than beating forecasts.

The firm said 35 out of the 39 retailers had so far reported their sales results Thursday. Of those, 75% had missed their forecasts while 25% beat.

Overall sales actually fell 0.7% in March versus Thomson Financial's initial estimate for a 0.1% increase. The sales drop was the worst March sales performance for retailers since the firm first started tracking monthly same-store sales numbers in 2000.

Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500), the world's largest retailer, posted a 0.7% increase in March sales at its stores open at least a year, which is a key measure of retail performance known as same-store sales.

That was at the low-end of its own guidance, which called for sales to be flat to up 2%. The company said that Easter coming about a month early this year resulted in a shorter selling period for the holiday.

It also cited cooler weather in March for weak sales of spring and summer clothing.

However, Wal-Mart offset some of the negative news by upping its first-quarter profit estimate and delivering a more optimistic sales guidance for April.

Elsewhere, the disappointments were more pronounced. Limited Brands (LTD, Fortune 500), owner of Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works chains, and teen apparel chain Pacific Sunwear (PSUN) both logged an 8% sales decline.

Abercrombie & Fitch suffered a 10% same-store sales drop while sales at Gap Inc (GPS, Fortune 500)., the No.1 clothing seller, plunged 18%.

Sales at mid-priced department store chains tumbled 15.5% at Kohl's and 12.3% at J.C. Penney.

Among the few bright spots, the "trading down" trend among budget-consciousness shoppers continued to benefit sales at wholesale clubs such as Costco (COST, Fortune 500).

Costco's overall same-store sales, including gasoline purchases jumped 7% in March while its competitor BJ's Wholesale club grew sales 6%, including gasoline purchases. Excluding gas sales, core merchandise sales rose 3% at Costco rose and increased 2.6% at BJ's. To top of page

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