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Retailers say sales strong in May

NEW YORK -- Consumers shopped with enthusiasm during May, shrugging off worries about gas prices and Iraq and giving many of the nation's biggest retailers a solid rebound from April's disappointing performance.

As retailers reported their results yesterday, it was clear all sectors did well, having been helped by an improving economy and warmer weather. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Costco Wholesale Corp., Talbots Inc., Saks Inc., and J.C. Penney Co. were among the standouts.

One of the big exceptions was Sears, Roebuck and Co., which reported a larger-than-expected sales decline. The strong sales were reassuring after consumers pulled back in April as gasoline and food prices were rising.

Analysts said they saw no signs of inflation concerns in May's results. "While there's been a worry about high gasoline prices, at this point it has not affected spending," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at The International Council of Shopping Centers. Referring to the uncertainty about Iraq, he said, "Consumers worry, but they still are spending."

Niemira's sales tally for May was up 5.7 percent, better than the 5 percent he anticipated.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS tally is based on what the industry calls same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year. Those sales are considered the best indicator of a retailer's health.

A big concern for retailers has been lower-income consumers, who are most vulnerable to rising gas prices and who still are struggling with a challenging job market, Niemira said. But, consumers, for now, remain resilient.

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