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Retailers get a welcome boost Jan. sales increase after dismal Dec.


After a brutal post-Christmas mop-up that saw a parade of retailers, large and small, heading to bankruptcy court, U.S. merchants received a much-needed morale boost yesterday as major retail chains reported solid gains in January sales.

A composite index of 11 major retailers prepared by Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. showed that January sales were 8 percent higher than those in the same month last year, the strongest performance in two years. But it was a tainted victory.

Last month's figures were being compared with those of January 1991, one of the worst months in U.S. retail history, when many Americans abandoned malls and stayed glued to the Cable News Network, watching the countdown to the Persian Gulf war.

Although cheering, last month's results give no clear signal of an end to the recession, analysts said. "It's really too early to tell if retail is in recovery," said Paul Bienstock, a retail analyst with Moran & Associates in Connecticut.

But after the pounding retailers took during the holiday shopping season, any victory is sweet, particularly after the industry endured a barrage of Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings from R. H. Macy & Co., Zale Corp., Linda Lynn and others.

Among the nation's largest retailers, Wal-Mart led the way. The Bentonville, Ark., discount chain, the nation's largest retailer, reported a 13 percent gain in comparable-store sales, the most widely watched measure of retail performance.

K mart's January comparable-store sales rose 6.2 percent, capping a year in which it pushed past Sears to become the nation's second-largest retailer.

Sales at May Department Stores, parent of Hecht's, were up 8.7 in January after a 0.5 percent dip in December. Sears, where sales skidded 1.8 percent in December, rebounded with a 7.7 percent gain last month. One locally based company did not share in the good fortune. Merry-Go-Round Enterprises Inc., an apparel chain based in Joppa, followed a dismal December with a 5 percent drop in January sales as consumer preferences shifted from casual pants to a more basic denim look.

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