Retailers Report Strong March Sales

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Strong gains at the direct divisions of JC Penney, Neiman Marcus and Sharper Image highlighted a bright sales picture among retailers reporting earnings late last week.

JC Penney Co., Plano, TX, reported catalog and Internet sales of $261 million for the five weeks ending April 3, up 9.7 percent from the comparable period last year. Strong sales from specialty catalogs and a 50 percent rise in Internet sales propelled the increase, the company said. Comparable-store sales rose 11.4 percent, and overall store sales were up 10.7 percent to $1.29 billion.

Comparable-store sales at Eckerd drugstores decreased 1.8 percent. JC Penney said last week that it would sell Eckerd to the Jean Coutu Group Inc. and CVS Corp. for $4.53 billion in cash.

A big jump in Internet and catalog sales fueled a 38 percent increase in sales in March at Sharper Image Corp., San Francisco. Overall sales were $54.8 million. Internet sales climbed 79 percent to $10 million, and catalog sales rose 51 percent to $17.1 million. Store sales increased 21 percent while comparable-store sales rose 3 percent.

Neiman Marcus Group, Dallas, reported that revenue at Neiman Marcus Direct increased 15.5 percent in March for its highest year-over-year sales performance. Areas experiencing strong sales included women's apparel, women's shoes, designer handbags and jewelry. Revenue for the Specialty Retail Stores segment, including Neiman Marcus Stores and Bergdorf Goodman, rose 27 percent. Total revenue was $345 million, up 25.8 percent.

Net retail sales at Target Corp., Minneapolis, were up 13.2 percent to $4.4 billion for the five weeks ended April 3. Comparable-store sales increased 7.3 percent. The results included sales at Mervyn's and Marshall Field's. Target selected Goldman Sachs last month to explore the sale of Marshall Field's and Mervyn's retail stores.

The Talbots Inc., Hingham, MA, announced a 4 percent rise in total company sales to $195.5 million for the five weeks ended April 3. Comparable-store sales climbed 1.1 percent.

Less fortunate was Spiegel, which said net sales were down 17 percent for the five weeks ended April 3, to $130.2 million, and down 22 percent for the 13-week period, to $322.4 million. Its direct net sales division, which includes catalog and e-commerce, dropped 20 percent for the month mainly because of a reduction in circulation for the Spiegel and Eddie Bauer catalogs.

However, sales increased for Newport News, the company said, because of higher customer response to its catalog. Spiegel said that comparable-store sales for Eddie Bauer were flat for the five-week period and down 2 percent for the 13-week period.

Spiegel also said last week that it plans to sell its Eddie Bauer and Newport News operations. A deal was announced with Pangea Holdings Ltd. to acquire Newport News, and Miller Buckfire Lewis Ying & Co. has been directed to solicit parties interested in acquiring Eddie Bauer.

Meanwhile, specialty retailer Brookstone, Nashua, NH, announced a 3-for-2 stock split to be paid to shareholders of record as of April 19. Brookstone chairman and president/CEO Michael Anthony attributed the split to confidence that the company would generate increases in earnings per share in 2004 and beyond. Brookstone has three catalog titles -- Brookstone, Hard-to-Find Tools and Gardeners Eden -- as well as e-commerce sites for Brookstone and Gardeners Eden.

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