Last updated: March 1, 2012 5:27 pm

Gap and Target post strong February sales

US retailers recorded better than expected sales in February as positive economic news and warm weather prompted an early start to spring shopping.

New fashion items at Gap helped generate its first sales growth in seven months as overall retail sales grew 6.5 per cent from a year ago among the 20 or so companies that report monthly figures.

The gain was the biggest since June 2011, according to Retail Metrics. Sales at Target, the mass-market discounter, rose 7 per cent and Macy’s, the department store, posted a 4.6 per cent increase.

Barbara Kahn, marketing professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, said the strong sales figures reflected higher consumer confidence and lower unemployment and indicated that growing concern over rising gas prices was not yet inhibiting spending.

But she added that Gap’s fortunes were a reminder that: “Consumers have to want to shop, but there has to be something in the stores they want to buy too.”

At stores open at least a year, sales of the Gap brand in North America rose 1 per cent in February, as it started selling clothes from a new creative team that is aiming to reverse Gap’s long decline into dowdiness.

“Customers responded well to our spring product,” said Glenn Murphy, chief executive. Last week Gap had reported a bleak Christmas.

Keith Jelinek of AlixPartners, a consultancy, said warm temperatures had encouraged shoppers to start buying spring clothes and outdoor furniture: “Retailers always want to blame the weather, but the weather definitely helped because this time last year we had very serious storms that pushed people inside.”

Another month of strong growth at stores that specialise in cut-price goods, with 9 per cent increases at both TJX and Ross Stores, suggested consumers remain cost-conscious.

“They’re being very precise in what they want to buy. They’re not updating their whole wardrobe. They’re being wise with their spend,” Mr Jelinek said.

Last week, Walmart, which does not report monthly sales, said US unemployment had not yet fallen to a level where financial pressure on its core low-income customers had visibly eased. On Thursday the retailer, the world’s biggest by sales, said it would raise its annual dividend 9 per cent to $1.59 per share.

At Limited Brands, which owns the store chains Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works and Henri Bendel, sales rose 8 per cent in February.

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