March Retail Numbers: They Could Be Worse!

In spite of a late Easter, chain stores do all right

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March sales figures are in for about two dozen retail chains. The headline you're likely to see everywhere: "Not as Bleak as Expected." Analysts were anticipating poor numbers for March--it was widely believed that cold weather and high gas prices would keep shoppers at home. But initial reports from a number of chains, including Costco, Walgreen, and Hot Topic, show that sales didn't take as much of a hit as market-watchers expected.

A couple things to keep in mind about the March report: Easter falls on April 24 this year, the latest it's been since 1943. A lot of clothing-and-candy sales are pegged to the holiday, which means there's a good chance we'll see a strong April after a so-so March. (The Wall Street Journal notes that the inverse happened last year, when Easter came early: March was robust, and then April less so.)

It's also worth noting from the reports that retailers are experimenting a bit with prices right now--raising them more than they need to so they can get a feel for what consumers will tolerate. So far, shoppers are willing to meet retailers at the prices they set. But as the Journal reports, "the risk... is that resistance simply will prove delayed"--it may only be a matter of time before consumers decide prices have gotten too high and it's time to cut back on spending.

Finally, as Reuters points out, the stores reporting March sales figures only account for about 10 percent of all U.S. retail. So while the March data is mildly encouraging, it's a good idea to keep it in perspective.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.