THE ECONOMY : Early Easter Blamed in Lackluster Retail Results

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

The nation's major retailers Thursday reported lackluster sales for the month of April, but industry analysts said the slow business resulted from the fact that Easter came early this year.

With Easter on April 3, consumers did much of their holiday buying in March, siphoning off business that normally would show up in April and causing some retailers to show modest sales declines last month. Retailers generally consider March and April sales together when assessing their performance in early spring. Considering both months, analysts said, the spring sales trend is positive.

For example, Los Angeles-based Carter Hawley Hale Stores, operator of the Broadway department store chain, had a 2.8% drop in same-store sales--revenue from stores open at least 12 months.

"Taking the two months of March and April together," Carter Hawley Hale President David Dworkin said, "this year they were ahead 2.2% compared to last year on a same-store basis. Additionally, last year's April showed exceptional comparable-store gains of 14.6%, and so we are not disappointed by this month's small relative decline of 2.8%."

In general, California retail sales were soft in April, reflecting the stronger Easter buying in March.

St. Louis-based May Department Stores Co., which has a major California presence--reported a 0.1% same-store sales gain for April compared to the same period a year ago. The retailer operates the Robinsons-May department store chain.

Dayton Hudson Corp., operator of the Target and Mervyn's chains, also reported modest sales gains for April. Target and Mervyn's both had a same-store sales increase of 1% nationwide.

"Target's performance in California is about the same as the rest of the country," said Ann Barkelew, spokeswoman for the Minneapolis-based Dayton Hudson. "Mervyn's' California performance was its best in the state in more than a year."

Overall, Dayton Hudson--which also operates the Dayton's, Hudson's and Marshall Fields department store chains--had a 2% same-store increase.

Nationwide, retail sales climbed 3.3% in April compared to the same period a year ago, according to an index compiled by Salomon Bros. In comparison, nationwide sales in March rose 11.1%.

Jeffrey Feiner, a Salomon analyst, said the index for March and April combined was a healthy 7.4%. He expects retailers to continue posting good gains, particularly because consumer demand for apparel has picked up after a long dry spell.

While some store operators said sales were weaker than expected, some retailers--Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Sears, for example--turned in very strong performances. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, said sales from stores open at least a year rose 8%, and Sears' same-store sales advanced 12.3%.

A more modest same-store gain of 1.2% was reported by Federated Department Stores, the Cincinnati-based operator of Bloomingdales. Federated is expected to continue its effort to acquire R.H. Macy & Co., which operates the Bullock's and I. Magnin chains.

Macy reports its sales later than other retailers because it is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Macy earlier this week said its same-store sales for March rose 14.6%.

Meanwhile, a number of major retailers reported same-store sales were lower in April compared to the same period a year ago. For example, sales fell 2.1% at J.C. Penney stores. Limited Inc. had an 8% drop in sales for the month.

Gap Inc. said sales at stores open at least year were unchanged in April.

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