Retail sales jump, as snow melts and shoppers emerge

Retail sales for the week ending March 6 rose a robust 2.9 percent from a week earlier. Freed from snow and shovels, and ready for spring, shoppers bust loose.

M. Spencer Green/AP
Shoppers checked out merchandise along Roosevelt Road in Chicago March 3. Sales last week were 3.4 percent higher than the same period in 2009, the strongest year-over-year gain in nearly three years, the International Council of Shopping Centers reported.

Ahh, spring! Time to buy floral print dresses, sandals for the beach, and a new hoe for the garden.

And that’s exactly what is starting to happen.

Retailers report that consumers, perhaps tired of being cooped up by winter snowstorms, are out buying. It helps, of course, if those dresses and sandals are at least 30 percent off, as many of them are. And to get consumers to pay attention to the sales, retailers are running ads that use “hot colors” such as pink and yellow.

Sales for the week ending March 6 rose a strong 2.9 percent over the previous week, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That figure, moreover, is 3.4 percent higher than the same period in 2009, the strongest year-over-year gain since July 2007. (Last spring, however, was particularly depressed, with retail sales for the first quarter down by 4 percent.)

In spring, people’s fancy turns to … shopping?

Some of the improvement is the result of a change in the weather. Two weeks ago, many communities were digging out from snowstorms. Now, parking lots are clear and shopping is easier.

“The better weather is definitely releasing some pent-up demand,” says Kristen Boughter, manager of client services at Planalytics, a company in Wayne, Pa., that provides businesses with weather information. “A lot of people are starting to clean up their yards and think about spring fashions.”

Economists expect the improvement to continue. In a memo to clients on Tuesday, economist Nigel Gault of IHS/Global Insight in Lexington, Mass., forecast that consumer spending will increase 2.6 percent in the first quarter, up from 1.7 percent in the fourth quarter.

Some retail specialists cautioned against becoming too optimistic.

“It’s too early to proclaim the consumer is back,” says Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation in Washington. “There will be pockets of strength, but we are going to need improvement in the core indicators to maintain any momentum.”

Mr. Krugman would be more optimistic if, for example, the US economy added jobs for two months in a row. Last Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the economy shed 36,000 jobs in February.

“We still have high unemployment and a lot of economic uncertainty,” says Krugman. “But people are showing they will spend if the deal is right.”

Deals reel them in

That’s the case with Barbara Monteiro, a New York book publicist, who recently bought a $50 bracelet, marked down to $30. She also bought two pairs of lightweight slacks and a skirt at Bloomingdale’s, which had reduced the prices from $300 total to $90.

“I can’t wear those old winter togs anymore,” she says. She sastoresys she’ll return for an aqua and gray jacket that is on sale.

March is ordinarily fairly quiet for the jewelry business. But this past weekend, with most of the snow gone, Christian Caine Jewelers in Shepherdstown, W.Va., saw an increase in foot traffic.

“What we experienced is a pickup in soon-to-be-engaged women, prospecting,” says Christopher Rankin, president of the jeweler who also does a lot of bridal design work. “We usually see an uptick in women looking before we see an increase in sales.”

Although the sunny weather is not expected to continue in the east this weekend, temperatures will remain seasonable, says Ms. Boughter. “We may get some rain, but at least we won’t have such cold readings,” she says. “And the storms will bring some warm air out in front, which will get people thinking spring.”

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