Retail sales keep falling

NEW YORK — After hibernating since last fall, shoppers may be carefully crawling out of their caves to restock their pantries and buy a few more necessities.

Retailers released figures Thursday showing that sales kept falling in February, but not nearly as much as in January — possibly indicating that business could be stabilizing. But analysts say that’s hardly enough to call the beginning of a recovery.

They caution that the better-than-expected reports were helped by better inventory control and point to Wal-Mart’s surging sales as a sign that more people may simply be shifting their spending to cheaper stores. The rift between discount stores and luxury merchants widened in February as shoppers kept worrying about the economy.

Investors dumped stocks again Thursday amid worries about the financial system and the future of companies like General Motors. And while the number of new jobless claims and the total number of people receiving unemployment benefits both dropped more than expected last week, they remain high.

Economists say that the job market needs to stabilize before shoppers will feel comfortable spending again. But those looking for any glimmers of hope found them.

“We’re seeing some signs that spending declines are bottoming out,” said Frank Badillo, senior economist at consulting group Retail Forward. “There are some pantries that need to be restocked and needs that were put off now that can’t be put off any longer.”

In some cases, he said, “the belt-tightening several months ago amid broad uncertainty has proved too severe as time or need has unfolded.”

Ken Perkins, president of research company RetailMetrics LLC, added that if the industry has indeed reached a bottom, it could well be “U-shaped” — a stretched-out slump — as opposed to “V-shaped” — meaning a quick recovery.

“It’s still ugly, but Wal-Mart dressed up the month,” he said. “The macro headwinds outweigh fashion, newness and better weather and will continue to make it very difficult for retailers through the first half of the year.”

The tally by the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs showed that sales at stores open at least a year, known as same-store sales, slipped 0.1 percent in February, less than the 1 to 2 percent drop that was forecast. That marked the fifth monthly drop in a row. But it was a marked improvement from January’s 1.6 percent drop, extending a trend since November’s big decrease of 2.7 percent. January’s sales were especially hurt by the huge discounts stores needed to offer to clear out holiday goods.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., whose sales account for more than half of the ICSC index, has been the big positive. Excluding Wal-Mart, same-store sales are still in a slump, falling 4.3 percent in February — still a bit better than the 4.8 percent in January.

Groceries and health products remained the best sellers as shoppers turned to the world’s largest retailer for necessities, echoing trends seen in Wednesday’s earnings reports Costco Wholesale Corp. and BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc. Wal-Mart also did well with entertainment products and housewares as more families stay at home.

Retailers are trying to adapt to consumers’ frugality, slashing inventory and other costs, while stocking up on products that shoppers need. Target, which posted a 4.1 percent decline for February — still not as bad as analysts expected — said last week that it will expand its food items and bolster its private-label brands.

Shoppers were more focused on wardrobe basics during the holidays, but now they’re looking to jazz up outfits they already have.