Retail results improve but consumers still wary

By Brad Dorfman

CHICAGO (Reuters) - For retailers that sell everything from toilet paper to refrigerators, 2010 may be more about winning sales from competitors than about getting consumers to buy a lot more of their merchandise.

Discounters like Target Corp and Sears Holdings Corp's Kmart stores posted improved sales performances on Tuesday 23 February, while home improvement retailer Home Depot Inc and department store chain Macy's also forecast better sales in 2010.

Many of them saw demand pick up for items that sat out the recession on store shelves, but cautioned investors that they don't expect a huge improvement in sales trends this year while unemployment remains high.

"You are going to see these times where you have consumer explosions, where business will pick up for five or six days, but then they are going to go down again to lower levels," said Britt Beemer, founder of America's Research Group, which monitors consumer sentiment.

That raises the competitive stakes for store chains, whose investors are focused on seeing better sales after more than a year of cost-cuts and store closings.

"While we still see little meaningful near-term improvement in macro-economic conditions, we do believe there is opportunity to gain market share by increasing same-store sales," said Macy's Chief Executive Terry Lundgren.

Lundgren's view was bolstered by a new survey that showed U.S. consumer confidence fell in February to the lowest in 10 months, as consumers' short-term outlook for the jobs market worsened, according to the conference board.

Macy's nevertheless said it expects a 1 percent to 2 percent increase in sales at stores open at least a year for the current fiscal year, compared with a 5.3 percent decline last year.

Shares tracked by the Standard & Poor's Retail Index were off 0.2 percent in afternoon trading. Target slipped 0.8 percent and Sears 1.3 percent, while Macy's rose 1.3 percent. Home Depot, whose quarterly results suggested continued gains against rival Lowe's Cos Inc, rose 1.9 percent.


One positive sign is that customers of both Home Depot and Lowe's were more willing to spend on big-ticket home projects such as painting, new flooring and renovating kitchens after a prolonged slump in the U.S. housing market.

Home Depot posted its first quarterly same-store sales rise in nearly four years.

Target has seen customers adding a few more home improvement and apparel items to their baskets, not just buying essentials like food, and expects sales of such discretionary merchandise to improve.

"Today, guests are telling us they're increasingly confident and are visiting more often and shopping more of the store," Kathee Tesija, Target's executive vice president of merchandising, said during a conference call with analysts.

But consumer caution was also evident in weekly sales numbers. The ICSC/Goldman Sachs same-store sales index rose 0.9 percent in the week ended February 20, compared with a year earlier. ICSC research forecasts a 2 percent rise in February same-store sales overall.

Macy's posted fourth-quarter profit of $1.40 per share, excluding onetime items, compared with an average analyst estimate of $1.37 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Home Depot posted a profit that beat analysts' expectations in the quarter, compared with a year-earlier loss. It forecast increases of about 2.5 percent in both total and same-store sales for this fiscal year, while net earnings from continuing operations should rise about 15.5 percent to $1.79 a share.


Sears' profit more than doubled, largely on cost cuts, as its same-store sales still fell 2.5 percent.

But the Sears chain appears to be losing market share to Home Depot and Lowe's, which have invested to improve their stores, said Credit Suisse analyst Gary Balter.

"Would you rather be in the lower multiple names that offer better growth or the higher multiple name that, other than some very effective Internet advertising, operates in stores that have been underinvested in for years?" Balter said in a research note.

Target slightly beat analysts' estimates as it avoided drastic clearance sales that crimped results in the holiday quarter last year. Sales at stores open at least a year, a key gauge of a retailer's health, rose 0.6 percent.

In the past year, Target reduced inventory and touted low prices to win back consumers who stopped shopping in its stores during the downturn. It is also renovating hundreds of stores to add more fresh food and groceries.

Target said the current Wall Street first-quarter earnings estimate is above its own forecast.

(Additional reporting by Dhanya Skariachan, Martinne Geller and Phil Wahba in New York, Ben Klayman in Chicago and Nicole Maestri in San Francisco; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Gerald E. McCormick)

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