Retailers had a middling March, watching their sales improve from a frigid February while struggling to beat their performance from the same month last year.
Two main factors impeded growth last month, according to several reports released Thursday.
Spring weather has been slow to come, leaving shoppers still shivering in cooler-than-usual temperatures. And in March 2013, retailers had the benefit of a revenue bump from Easter, which shifted this year to April 20.
In one report, analyst Ken Perkins of Retail Metrics Inc. said March same-store sales rose 3.5% from a year earlier, beating expectations for a 2.5% boost.
But when stripping out a surprisingly high 5% sales upswing at Costco, which tends to close on Easter, overall retail sales increased just 1.6%, Perkins said.
Due to the slow start to the spring selling season, "April results take on added meaning this year," he said in his report.
"Retailers and investors will be looking for strong Easter sales coupled with the release of pent-up demand for warmer weather merchandise this month," he said.
Shopper activity rebounded in March from the previous month amid warmer conditions on the West Coast and a surge in disposable income due to tax refunds, according to analytics firm Euclid. But compared to the same month in 2013, traffic slowed 1% without holiday shopping events to encourage browsing.
The best sales day of the month was March 5, according to Euclid.
But many apparel chains continued to resort to price cuts and promotions as they struggled to lure consumers. Teen clothing brands the Buckle and Zumiez both endured a same store sales slide, as did Victoria's Secret parent L Brands.
The garment sector slipped 3% in March, according to a gauge from Thomson Reuters. Excluding the effect of drugstores, the tally showed total retail sales rising 2.4% in March, lagging the 2.7% increase a year earlier.
Separately, the International Council of Shopping Centers said it expects a 3.5% to 4% sales increase in April.
The data in Thursday's reports are drawn from monthly earnings reports from a shrinking smattering of retailers. Most companies, including Target, Macy's and Wal-Mart, release only quarterly sales figures.
Gap and American Apparel are expected to announce their numbers after the market closes.