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Retail sales surge

Rising gas prices fail to slow spending in April

NEW YORK -- Consumers seemingly unfazed by rising gasoline prices shopped enthusiastically during April, giving retailers their best performance in two years.

Warmer weather, a late Easter, and hot fashion trends helped entice shoppers, but merchants remained wary about the possibility that expensive gas and higher interest rates could still curb consumers' appetites.

As major retailers reported their sales figures yesterday, many of them, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Nordstrom Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch Co., and Limited Brands Inc., had better-than-expected results. Even Gap Inc., which has disappointed Wall Street for months, posted a smaller sales decline than analysts expected.

Solid sales helped J.C. Penney Co. raise its first-quarter profit outlook, boding well for other merchants as they prepare to report earnings over the next few weeks.

Overall, ''it looks excellent," said Jharonne Martis, an analyst at Thomson Financial. She noted that although there are worries about the strength of sales in the next few months, ''consumers beat expectations. It seems like all stores got traffic."

Martis noted that a positive sign was the robust results from retailers catering to teenagers, indicating that younger consumers have a lot of discretionary spending despite high gasoline prices, she said.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales tally of 69 retailers rose a robust 6.6 percent last month, the best performance since March 2004, when the reading was up 7.0 percent. The tally is based on same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year. Same-store sales are considered the best indicator of a retailer's performance.

A big factor boosting sales last month was a late Easter, which fell on April 16 and was three weeks later than last year. Because of the calendar shift, retailers and analysts look at the combined spring selling period of March and April, which was up a solid 4.3 percent, better than the 3.1 percent gain in the year-ago period.

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