RETAILERS, hurt by deepening economic malaise, report lackluster sales for April

Thursday, May 10th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP)_ The sluggish economy, rising energy prices and unseasonably cool weather continued to stymie many of the nation's retailers, which reported April sales generally were lackluster.

Department stores, particularly Bon-Ton Stores Inc., the Elder-Beerman Stores Corp. and Dillard's Inc. fared the worst, according to results announced Thursday.

Specialty stores turned in a mixed performance, with stores like Limited Stores Inc. and Gap Inc. continuing to struggle. Others like Talbots Inc. and Abercrombie & Fitch, however, reported strong gains.

Discounters, particularly Wal-Mart Stores Inc., appeared to be the clear winners. The world's largest retailer turned in a better-than-expected 6.5 percent increase in sales at stores open at least a year, known as same-store sales. That was above analysts' expectations for a 3 percent to 5 percent gain.

Same-store sales are the best indicator of a retailer's health.

``People are trading down,'' said Kurt Barnard, publisher of the Retail Trend Report, based in Upper Montclair, N.J. ``They are also becoming bargain hunters.''

Retailers' earnings, the bulk of which will be reported over the next two weeks, are expected to reflect the consumer spending shortfall, Barnard said.

Retail sales will not improve for until the end of the year, at the earliest, he said. He cited recent economic reports that have rekindled recessionary fears.

The nation's unemployment rate jumped to 4.5 percent in April from 4.3 percent in March. And though consumer confidence made a bit of a comeback in March after five straight months of declines, it dropped sharply in April. Meanwhile, higher energy prices have squeezed corporate profits and restrained consumer spending.

Selected figures on April's sales at leading retail chains:

_Talbots: Same-store sales up 12.6 percent; total sales up 18 percent.

_Costco Wholesale Corp.: Same-store sales up 6 percent; total sales up 12 percent.

_AnnTaylor Stores Corp.: Same-store sales up 1.2 percent; total sales up 15.4 percent.

_J.C. Penney Co.: Same-store sales up 3.2 percent for department stores; total department store sales up 1.8 percent.

_Dillard's Inc.: Same-store sales, total sales both down 6 percent.

_Sears, Roebuck and Co.: Domestic same-store sales up 1.3 percent; total sales up 1.7 percent.

_Gap: Same-store sales down 2 percent; total sales up 19 percent.