Pent-up demand explodes for retailers in March

In a promising sign for the nation’s recovery, retailers had a blowout month in March as pent-up demand, warm weather and Easter led to the best monthly sales performance in a decade.

Major chain stores posted a whopping 9.1% increase compared with a year earlier, according to Thomson Reuters’ tally of 28 companies. That was significantly better than the 6.3% gain analysts had been expecting and marked the best month on record since the information company began tracking data in 2000.

Industry watchers were cheered by the robust growth and noted that sales growth was widespread among several categories. Retailers including discounter Target Corp., department store Kohl’s Corp., luxury chain Saks Inc., midpriced seller Gap Inc. and teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters Inc. all posted double-digit gains.

Although sales were helped by an earlier Easter and a weak March 2009, when sales fell 5%, analysts said the sales performance reflected more than that.

“The fact that retailers vastly exceeded already raised expectations suggests to us that there is more going on here,” said Ken Perkins, president of research firm Retail Metrics Inc. “Consumers are generally feeling better about their plight and are finally making discretionary purchases and beginning to trade back up a bit.”

At Macy’s Inc., sales were up 10.8% in March. The department store giant also reported a 40.4% increase in its online sales.

“Both Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s had a very strong month and performed above our expectations across the stores and online channels,” Chief Executive Terry J. Lundgren said in a statement. “Customers are responding favorably.”

Results are based on sales at stores open at least a year, known as same-store sales and considered a reliable measure of a retailer’s health.

At the Grove in Los Angeles on Wednesday, shoppers packed the outdoor shopping center, with many toting large shopping bags and saying they felt ready to shop freely again.

“I spent $500 on a purse -- it took me three minutes,” said Jenny Kaufman, a 21-year-old actress from Beverly Hills who’d just bought a black hobo-style bag from Michael Kors. “I’m not having buyer’s remorse.”