Outlook for retailers hazy as sales figures are mixed Sears reports sparkling 12% gain


Anyone looking for a clear signal of the direction of the U.S. economy had better look elsewhere than at the June sales figures reported by major retailers yesterday. It was a muddled month.

American consumers, supposedly spooked by talk of taxes and bereft of confidence, were out buying cars, computers and stereo equipment. But at the same time, clothing sales were spotty, and discounters posted lackluster results.

Sears Merchandise Group, once thought to be the dinosaur of the American retailing scene, roared back to life, with a 12 percent gain in sales at stores open at least a year, known as same-store sales.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart Stores, which has dethroned Sears as the nation's No. 1 retailer, lagged behind, with a 7 percent gain -- admirable for most retailers but unspectacular by Wal-Mart standards.

Overall, analysts were divided on how to read the numbers.

"Apparel was extremely weak," said Linda Morris of PNC Financial Corp. in Philadelphia.

"Apparel was good," said Joseph C. Ronning of Brown Bros. Harriman in New York.

In a way, both are right.

For department store sales, June was a bang-up month. Federated Department Stores was up 6.6 percent on a same-store basis. May Department Stores, parent of Hecht's, posted a 5.7 percent gain.

But for specialty apparel retailers, sales were poor to middling. Same-store sales at Joppa-based Merry-Go-Round Enterprises were down 5 percent. Charming Shoppes Inc. posted flat results. The Gap Inc. gained 2 percent, while The Limited Inc. showed a respectable 4 percent increase.

The discount sector showed mixed results. Kmart Corp.'s discount stores registered a solid same-store gain of 4.8 percent, but its companywide figures were dragged down by an increase of 2.8 percent at its specialty chains. Caldor Corp. also posted a 4.8 percent increase, but Ames Department Stores, Value City Department Stores and and Jamesway Corp. all reported declines.

Landover-based Hechinger Co. posted flat same-store sales, but its sales were compared with an extremely strong performance last June.

Sears' astonishing 12 percent gain sparked attention and sent its stock climbing $1.875 a share yesterday, to close at $58. Some of the increase was illusory, because its figures were being compared with those of June 1992, when reports of abuses in its automotive service sent its sales into the tank.

But analysts said much of the gain reflected improvements in Sears' retail operation under Arthur C. Martinez, the recently installed president of the merchandise group.

The general picture was murkier. Ms. Morris said she saw signs that consumers were taking advantage of low interest rates to buy big-ticket durable goods while continuing to economize on lower-priced goods.

Mr. Ronning said the figures showed consumers merely made purchases in June that they had deferred amid poor spring weather.

But for Kenneth M. Gassman Jr., the retail analyst for Davenport & Co. in Richmond, Va., the June numbers are a sign that better times might be on the way.

"I think the consumers are loosening their purse strings more than we give them credit for," Mr. Gassman said. "If Congress doesn't shoot themselves in the foot with the federal budget, I think we can be looking at a stronger consumer than most of us think this Christmas season."

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