January Sales Heartening for Retailers; but Analysts Say Not to Lean on the Results Too Heavily, as Consumers Rein in Spending in the Face of Rising Fuel Costs

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Byline: MARK BASCH

Stein Mart Inc. Thursday reported lower January sales but like many of the nation's retailers, the company said the month was better than expected. So Stein Mart is slightly raising its fourth-quarter earnings projection.

Stein Mart said total sales for the four weeks ended Jan. 28 fell 0.5 percent to $80.2 million and comparable store sales fell 0.4 percent.

That finished an overall down fourth quarter in which total sales fell 4 percent to $427.4 million and comparable sales fell 4.4 percent. But a month ago, the Jacksonville-based fashion retailer had projected comparable store sales for the quarter ended Jan. 28 to be down 5 percent to 6 percent.

"Our business accelerated in the second half of the month in response to our prior season inventory liquidation, as well as a stronger flow of new merchandise," said a statement by President and CEO Michael Fisher.

"We are pleased with the status of our seasonal clearance, and we are seeing a favorable response to deliveries of new apparel and new home merchandise," he said.

After a disappointing holiday season, Stein Mart last month lowered its earnings forecast range for the quarter by 11 cents a share to between 36 cents and 39 cents. It said Thursday it now expects earnings to "slightly exceed" that range. Stein Mart earned 53 cents a share in the fourth quarter last year.

The chain of 262 stores will release its fourth quarter earnings report on March 16.

Nationally in January, consumers armed with gift cards and lured by mild weather gave many retailers a better-than-expected sales boost for the month.

As merchants reported their results Thursday, winners cut across all categories, including discounters like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp., wholesale club operators such as Costco Wholesale Corp., teen retailers including Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and mid-price and upscale department stores such as Nordstrom Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. Inc.

Even Gap Inc., which has been struggling to find the right fashion formula, turned in a sales performance that pleased Wall Street.

Overall, merchants' reports provided some encouraging news about fourth-quarter profits, as many stores at least backed their earnings forecasts. Federated Department Stores Inc. raised its earnings outlook as it announced sales in line with analysts' projections.

''In January, there was a collision of one-time factors working for retailers,'' said Michelle Bogan, retail strategist at Kurt Salmon Associates. But she cautioned that ''retailers shouldn't read too much into the numbers now that consumers have gotten their holiday bills and appear to be tightening their wallets.''

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales tally of 65 retailers posted a 5.1 percent gain, better than its forecast of up to 4 percent. January's figures also marked the industry's best performance since June 2005, when the tally rose 5.2 percent. …

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