Economic Update – Retail Finding a Bottom?

Whatever else is happening in the economy, U.S. consumers seem to have returned to the nation’s stores in somewhat greater numbers now that spring is here. According to consultancy Retail Forward, the 35 major retailers that it surveys saw a 0.9 percent increase in same-store sales in April compared with March, when sales had dropped 1.9 percent. Average same-store sales compared with April 2008, however, were down 3.7 percent. “The retail sales declines are finding a bottom, but it’s a bumpy bottom,” said Frank Badillo, senior economist at Retail Forward. Bumpy, and maybe murky like the sea bottom, so it isn’t clear how long retailers will have to slog along down there, nor whether any monsters of the deep await to upset retail even more (such as a worse-than-expected swine flu pandemic). Leading the pack once again was Wal-Mart Stores Inc., whose same-store sales in April 2009 were up 5.9 percent compared with the same month last year. Rival Target Corp. managed to eke out a 0.3 percent increase over the same period. Same-store sales for department stores remained strongly negative since this time last year, but apparel same-store sales were a mixed bag. Some apparel retailers, such as Aeropostale Inc., Buckle Inc., Cato Corp., Children’s Place Retail Stores Inc., Hot Topic Inc. Ross Stores Inc., and TJX Cos. Inc., had same-store sales gains since last April. This month marks the last time that Wal-Mart will bother reporting its monthly same-store sales results, which it has done for 30 years. If other retailers do the same in the near future, that might complicated investors’ efforts to track retailer health–though the retailers themselves would say (as Wal-Mart is saying) that tracking same-store sales monthly distorts the big picture by focusing too much on such short-term results. In other glimmers of good economic news, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported on Thursday that the four-week moving average of initial jobless claims was 623,500 during the week than ended May 1, which is 30,000 less than in early April, when the average peaked. The government also reported separately that worker productivity grew during the first quarter of 2009 at an annual rate of 0.8 percent. Those who still have their jobs are working just that little extra bit harder, it seems.The result of the stress tests on 19 major U.S. banks wasn’t actually much of a surprise by time official word of it came on Thursday–10 of the banks need about $75 billion, relative small potatoes in the bailout realm–but investors still seemed a little miffed. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 102.43 points, or 1.2 percent, while the S&P 500 dropped 1.32 percent. The Nasdaq saw a somewhat larger decline of 2.44 percent.