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Retail sales in April muster a 2.2 gain

Uneven results reflect consumers' doubts over economy, high gas prices

NEW YORK -- Consumers in April overcame some of their reluctance to shop, giving the nation's retailers sales that modestly beat expectations. Results again varied widely among merchants, reflecting shoppers' uncertainty about the economy and their struggles with higher gasoline prices.

As stores released their monthly sales figures yesterday, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, and rival discounter Target Corp. turned in disappointing performances. But teen retailers, luxury stores, and wholesale clubs had substantial sales gains. Other standouts included moderate-price department stores including J.C. Penney Co.

''There were clear pockets of strength," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales tally of 70 stores posted a 2.2 increase for the month, better than the 2 percent gain Niemira expected. The tally is based on same-store sales, which reflect business from stores open at least a year, the best indicator of a retailer's health.

An earlier Easter, which fell in March, depressed April's results. Without the calendar shift, April sales would have been up 3.7 percent, about in line with last year's same-store sales pace. Analysts tend to look at March and April together, which resulted in what Niemira called a modest 3.1 percent gain.

Most retailers managed to preserve profits, according to Todd D. Slater, retail analyst at Lazard Ltd. Several major retailers, including Federated Department Stores Inc., J.C. Penney, and Talbots Inc., raised their first-quarter earnings outlook yesterday based on stronger-than-expected business.

Still, Americans are concerned about the economy, according to measures of consumer confidence that have fallen for three straight months, and they've had to factor higher gas prices and interest rates into their budgets.

The nation's discounters, whose customers have been particularly hurt by high gas prices and job weakness, had another lackluster month. Wal-Mart had a 0.9 percent gain in same-store sales, slightly below the 1 percent consensus prediction of analysts polled by Thomson Financial. Meanwhile, Costco Wholesale Corp. enjoyed a same-stores sales gain of 8 percent and Natick-based BJ's Wholesale Club had an 8.4 percent gain.

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