NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
While a late Easter took the punch out of retail sales in March, it's the warmer weather and not the holiday being in April that could make one hard-hit industry blossom: specialty apparel.
"The big bet for the apparel merchants is not how Easter sales will shape up in April but how the weather acts," said Laurence Leeds, retail analyst with Buckingham Research.
The Easter holiday falls on April 20 this year, about three weeks later than last year.
Industry watchers point out that while Easter has become a less important holiday shopping period for retailers, apparel sales typically see the most gains because it also coincides with the beginning of spring.
Added Leeds, "The late Easter and colder weather in March delayed the spring clothes shopping this year. School spring break also got pushed into April from March. So there'll be a lot of kids in malls this month."
Investors possibly were already anticipating the trend, boosting stocks of clothing chains popular with teens like Hot Topic (HOTT: up $1.15 to $22.86, Research, Estimates), Aeropostale (ARO: up $0.10 to $15.35, Research, Estimates), the Gap (GPS: up $0.47 to $15.77, Research, Estimates) and American Eagle Outfitters (AEOS: up $0.52 to $15.53, Research, Estimates) higher at midday Thursday.
Hot Topic, a mall-based specialty retailer of music-licensed and music-influenced apparel, accessories and gift items for teens, posted a 3.1 percent decline in March same-store sales -- or sales at stores open at least a year -- citing the Easter shift.
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Pacific Sunwear of California (PSUN: down $0.13 to $21.08, Research, Estimates) posted a strong 9.5 percent rise in same-store sales in March and said it expects a first-quarter profit of 14 cents a share, 2 cents above Wall Street estimates. The Gap posted a 9 percent increase in its March same-store sales, with its Old Navy division posting the strongest comparable sales performance, a 17 percent increase in March compared with a decline of 12 percent last year.
"Old Navy really stole the show for Gap Inc.," said Jennifer Black, specialty retail analyst with Wells Fargo Securities. "The sales trend show that basics, like plain white or black T-shirts and cargo pants or sweatsuits, will perform well. Consumers may not have the dollars to spend on apparel right now and that's why they're going after products with staying power."
"The other thing is that with the war on, kids may not have been able to tear their parents away from the television sets," Black said. "That could have been a factor for some chains, like Hot Topic, coming in with weaker sales. Basically teens are very image conscious. Summer holidays are coming up, and they want to look good. Teen niche retailers are going to see sales go up heading into the summer."
Retail chains wilt in March
Meanwhile, U.S. retail chains Thursday blamed the Easter delay, colder weather, the war distraction and consumer concerns about the economy for weak March sales across-the-board.
"It's been a tough spring for the retailers," said Ken Perkins, retail analyst with First Call. "While they have not had to face as many hurdles as the airline industry, nonetheless, it's been a very difficult retail environment. They've been squeezed by sluggish economic growth, rolling layoffs, waning consumer confidence, high energy prices and geopolitical worries like North Korea and the war with Iraq."
Perkins forecasts March same-store sales to be down 0.1 percent for the 68 retailers that he tracks. Perkins said April sales should be better because of Easter.
"April comps will reap the benefits of Easter holiday sales. But as usually is the case with March and April, it's best to view the two months on a combined basis. Retailers find themselves against a stiff 7.1 percent gain a year ago," Perkins said.
Other industry watchers were also downbeat about their outlook for the retail sector.
"Retail sales will remain anemic for the year for most retailers," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of New York-based national retail consulting firm Davidowitz & Associates. "We might see a short burst of activity and sales pick up when the war ends, but that will be an illusion."
"The No. 1 problem for retailers is that there's no topline growth. That's because the economy is stagnant. Consumers are not happy campers. They're worried about their future and are doing things like increasing savings and cutting down their debt. But one thing that could jump-start spending in retail is falling energy prices. So look out for that," Davidowitz said.
Easter switch distresses Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart Stores (WMT: up $0.10 to $53.80, Research, Estimates) had only a slight increase in a key sales measure in March, as consumers staying home to follow war news and a later Easter this year hurt comparisons with a year earlier.
The world's largest retailer reported Thursday that same-store sales edged up only 0.7 percent in the five weeks ended April 4. The company had forecast percentage growth in same-store sales in the low single digits. Overall sales rose 7.8 percent to $23.2 billion.
"The last time Wal-Mart had a monthly same-store sales gain that low was back in December of 2000, with a 0.3 percent rise," said First Call's Perkins. "Prior to that was in April of 1996, with a 0.2 percent gain. That was probably another year when Easter got pushed into April."
The company said in a recorded announcement that it was difficult to predict April sales, due to both the geopolitical situation and Easter falling during the current period rather than during March, as it did last year. Still, it projected a 5 to 7 percent gain in same-store sales in the April period.
Federated Department Stores, (FD: up $0.47 to $28.61, Research, Estimates) which operates a number of well-known chains, including Macy's and Bloomingdale's, posted at 6.5 percent decline in same-store sales, and a 5.9 percent fall in overall sales to $1.3 billion.
The company said it now expects April sales to be below earlier expectations. But the company said despite disappointing sales it should be able to earn between 14 and 19 cents a share in the fiscal first quarter, which ends May 3. That would put it at or above the consensus Wall Street forecast of 14 cents a share.
J.C. Penney Co. (JCP: down $0.90 to $17.99, Research, Estimates) reported a 5.5 percent decline in same-store sales in its department stores unit, and a 3.0 percent decline for the Eckerd drugstore unit. Catalog sales fell 13.1 percent. The retailer also warned that it expects first-quarter earnings of 18 cents to 23 cents a share, compared with analysts' forecast of a profit of 32 cents, according to First Call.
Meanwhile, No. 2 general retailer Sears Roebuck & Co. (S: up $0.92 to $26.15, Research, Estimates) reported a 3.1 percent decline in domestic same-store sales and overall 2.3 percent decline to $2.4 billion. That actually was an improvement from the decline in the combined January and February period, and left the chain with a year-to-date 5.9 percent drop in same-store sales and a 4.7 percent drop in overall domestic sales in the first quarter.
Discount chain Target (TGT: down $0.39 to $30.40, Research, Estimates) posted a 2.3 percent decline in its March same-store sales, and also warned on its first quarter.
"Sales for the corporation continued to be somewhat below plan in March," Bob Ulrich, chairman and chief executive officer of Target, said in a statement. "In light of our actual sales performance in February and March, and our outlook for April, we are unlikely to fully achieve our profit plan in the first quarter."
The retailer said it expects total sales at stores open at least a year to fall 1 percent in April.
--CNN/Money Senior Writer Chris Isidore contributed to this story