Retailers report modest gains for May

Shoppers at a Costco warehouse store in Brooklyn, N.Y. Chris Hondros/Getty Images, file

NEW YORK In the latest sign that Americans are feeling better about the overall economy, stores across the country had a pickup in sales in May.

An improving job picture, better housing market and stock market rallies have all led to consumer confidence's reaching five-year highs. That has left Americans a bit more likely to reach into their pockets and spend, as monthly revenue reports released by national retailers on Thursday show.

Revenue at stores open at least a year -- an industry measure of a store's health -- rose 3.2 percent in May compared with the same month a year ago, according to a preliminary tally of 12 prominent retailers by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The increase continues a gradual sales uptick that began in early spring. The measure rose 3 percent in April.

"It's good, not great," said Michael Niemira, chief economist at the ICSC. "Some underlying improvement in the U.S. economy along with an improving 'wealth effect' from rising stock and home prices is helping to lift the sales pace."

He expects the gradual increase to continue, predicting revenue to rise to 3.5 percent in June.

While big chains such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), Target Corp. (TGT) and Macy's Inc. (M) don't report monthly revenue, the stores that do offer economists a snapshot of consumer spending habits. In total, the retailers that report monthly data represent about 6 percent of the $2.4 trillion in U.S. retail industry sales.

Accenture managing director Chris Donnelley said the monthly numbers, combined with previous months', are encouraging as weather became more predictable and shoppers acted on pent-up demand for spring and summer clothing.

"Overall, it's a positive sales trend," he said. The numbers were surprisingly consistent across all sectors, he said, including discount stores, specialty apparels and teen stores.

"Everybody seems to produce good numbers, but nobody had a breakthrough for May," he said.

Among the best performers were Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST), which reported revenue in stores open at least one year rose 5 percent, though that fell slightly short of analyst expectations of a 5.5 percent rise. The measure rose 6 percent excluding changes in gas prices and the stronger dollar.

Discount department store operator Stein Mart (SMRT) had surprisingly strong results, with the measure up 8.2 percent, far above the 2 percent that was expected. Ladies' casual and career sportswear were also among its best categories for the month.

L Brands Inc. (LTD), which operates Victoria's Secret and Bath and BodyWorks and was formerly known as Limited Brands, said the figure rose 3 percent, slightly below analyst expectations of a 3.2 percent increase.

In the teen sector, the Buckle Inc.'s (BKE) revenue at stores open at least a year climbed 4.1 percent in May, as teens snapped up spring and summer clothing. Results topped analyst expectations of a 3.3 percent rise.

The reports came as the Labor Department said Thursday that the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell 11,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 346,000, a level consistent with steady job growth. Meanwhile, the stock market has been on a rally, rising every month this year and climbing to record levels this spring, although there has been some pullback in June. And housing prices rose 11 percent in March, the sharpest 12-month increase in 7 years.

But despite the positive news about the economy, analysts expect modest but steady gradual growth rather than any significant spending uptick that may have been seen a decade ago.

"We're not seeing higher gains like we saw in the mid-2000s when the real estate market was on the rise," said Ken Perkins, president of research firm Retail Metrics LLC. "So many consumers still have homes underwater and are still playing catch-up."

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