Retail sales rise again in March, surprising analysts

Retailers delivered another decent performance last month, with shoppers continuing to spend despite poor weather, high gasoline prices and a later Easter.

Retail analysts had expected to see the first monthly sales decline since 2009 because of those factors, which threatened to slow the industry's recent momentum.

But shoppers couldn't be deterred. On Thursday, the nation's retailers reported a modest 1.7% year-over-year increase for March, better than the 0.7% decline that had been expected, according to Thomson Reuters' tally of 25 major retail chains.

"This gain, in the face of somewhat adverse factors, was encouraging and reflected a solid underlying trend in consumer demand," said Michael Niemira, chief economist of the International Council of Shopping Centers.

More than 80% of retailers beat expectations.

A mix of sectors was represented among the month's top performers. Limited Brands, parent company of Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works, posted a 14% increase. Warehouse club Costco Wholesale Corp. said sales rose 13%, luxury department store chain Saks Inc. reported an 11.1% rise and teen retailer Zumiez Inc. saw an 8.9% gain.

Weaker performers included Gap Inc., which reported a 10% drop; Kohl's Corp., with a 6.5% decline; and Target Corp., down 5.5%.

Results are based on sales at stores open at least a year, known as same-store sales and considered an important measure of a retailer's health because it excludes the effect of store openings and closings.

The later Easter date this year — April 24 this year versus April 4 in 2010 — should give retailers an extra boost in sales this month. The International Council of Shopping Centers is predicting a 5% to 6% rise for April.

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