NEW YORK — Tax rebate checks gave consumers a little extra money in their pockets during May, but most still were spending conservatively, buying necessities such as food and gas and shying away from splurging on clothing or furniture. The result was some better-than-expected sales for the nation's retailers, with lower-priced merchants like discounters and wholesale clubs showing the strongest gains.
Accordingly, Costco Wholesale Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. were among the strongest performers, but fewer rebate dollars made their way to the mall, and retailers such as Gap Inc. and American Eagle Outfitters Inc. missed expectations.
"It was a great month for discount retailers, but the rest of retail is struggling to capture a share of the consumer's wallet," said Patricia Edwards, a portfolio manager and retail analyst at Wentworth, Hauser & Violich in Seattle.
Overall, results were better than the gloomy May analysts predicted as consumers still shopped despite rising energy costs, declining home values and tightening credit, and some analysts saw some glimmers of a possible pickup in business later this year. And tax rebate checks helped offset rising gas prices, said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics LLC, a research company in Swampscott, Mass.
"It certainly looks as though gas tanks didn't siphon off all of the rebate stimulus," he said. "Consumers were able to spend in May."
Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at International Council of Shopping Centers, said May results, coupled with a hoped-for decrease in gas prices in the coming months, could be the start of a turnaround in the sector. Gas prices now average close to $4 a gallon nationwide, and while they are expected to edge higher in the short term, are predicted to decline after that.
"The tax rebate money is starting to help a little bit, but it will probably become a bit more widespread in coming months," Niemira said.
But retailers still were wary. Even Wal-Mart, which surpassed analyst forecasts, acknowledged consumers' reluctance to spend.
"Our customer is clearly under pressure when it comes to higher gas prices, higher food prices for that matter," said Tom Schoewe, Wal-Mart's chief financial officer.
As of May 30, the Treasury Department said 57.43 million tax rebate payments have been sent out totaling $50.041 billion, just under half the $106.7 billion the government expects to send out.
Craig R. Johnson, president of the consultancy Customer Growth Partners in New Canaan, Conn., predicted consumers will save or pay down debt with about 60 percent of their rebate money and spend about 40 percent, providing an "overall modestly positive, but clearly positive," boost to sales continuing through the summer and back-to-school shopping season.
The UBS-International Council of Shopping Centers retail sales tally for May rose 3 percent, surpassing the 1 percent growth estimate. Fiscal-year-to date, the average monthly same-store sales tally has risen 2 percent.
Retail sales have been largely disappointing since the holiday season, with lower-priced stores like Wal-Mart and Costco among the few standouts. Consumers have had to contend with ever-rising food and gasoline bills, forcing them to pay more for the basics and stopping them from buying clothing and other non-discretionary items. Worries about the ongoing housing slump and struggling economy have taken a further toll, making consumers think twice before even mildly splurging.
Even when sales showed some improvement in April and May, it was clear that consumers are still extremely cautious — and even when gas prices recede, no one expects consumers to go on a mass spending spree.
Wal-Mart was one of the few retailers to specifically mention a benefit from stimulus checks. The world's largest retailer said same-store sales rose 3.9 percent, or 4.4 including fuel sales while analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial predicted a 1.6 percent rise.
Schoewe told reporters on Thursday at a media gathering in Rogers, Ark., that $350 million worth of tax rebate checks had been cashed in the stores so far, although he didn't know what percentage of that money was actually spent at Wal-Mart. He said the checks, along with an improvement in Wal-Mart's merchandise, helped May sales results surpass expectations.
Rival Target, which has a somewhat more upscale clientele, said same-store sales fell 0.7 percent, while analysts expected an 0.2 percent drop. Health care, electronics and perishables were the strongest sales categories in May, while men's apparel, jewelry and lawn and patio sales were weakest.
Costco said same-store sales rose 9 percent, ahead of the 6.9 percent analysts were expecting.
TJX Cos., which operates discount apparel and home furnishing stores, said same-store sales rose 2 percent, edging higher than the 1.8 percent analysts expected.
Department stores reported weaker results, but many still beat analyst expectations.
J.C. Penney Inc. said same-store sales fell 4.4 percent, better than the 5.8 percent analysts expected.
Luxury retailer Saks Inc. said same-store sales fell 8.7 percent, while analysts predicted a 7.5 percent drop, but that was mainly because of the shift of a clearance event into April. Combined April and May same-store sales rose 8.6 percent.
Mall-based apparel stores continued to struggle. Overall, according to a poll by Thomson Financial, specialty apparel same-store sales fell 3.8 percent, a bigger drop than the 3.1 percent analysts expected.
Limited Brands Inc. said same-store sales fell 6 percent, missing the 5.5 percent drop analysts expected. The company's stores include Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works.
Gap Inc.'s same-store sales fell 14 percent, hurt by results from its Old Navy Stores. The result was worse than the 9.5 percent decline analysts expected.
Teen retailers, who tend to be a little more recession-proof than other apparel merchants, had mixed results.
American Eagle Outfitters Inc. said same-store sales fell 9 percent, worse than the 4.8 percent drop analysts predicted. Meanwhile, Aeropostale Inc. had a 6 percent rise, meeting analyst expectations, helped by positive reaction to its summer merchandise.