Sometimes, the devil is in the deals.
Americans shopped the winter clearance racks in January, resulting in strong sales during the month for retailers. But spending is expected to slow as the deals dry up, and as Americans begin to digest rising gas prices and a 2 percent payroll tax hike that started in January.
Noelle Perillo, 34, was certainly lured in by deals last month — she spent $100 on discounted holiday ornaments, home items and clothes for her toddler son — but she also says she may cut back going forward.
"I have what I need, and I am kind of shopped out. I'm set for now," says Perillo, a freelance public relations consultant who lives in Silver Springs, Md. "When I hear things like gas prices spiking, that's a concern."
Overall, 20 retailers reported on Thursday that revenue at stores opened at least a year — an indicator of a store's health — rose an average of 5.1 percent, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That's above the trade group's 3 percent estimate. It also marks the highest reading since last August when the figure was up 6 percent.
A group representing just about 13 percent of the $2.4 trillion U.S. retail industry report monthly revenue. Still, the data offers a snapshot of consumer spending, which has been heavily influenced by discounts during the economic downturn.
Retailers had already discounted heavily during the holiday season to get people to buy. January, which typically is the time when stores have clearance sales on winter merchandise to make room for spring items, caused them to slash prices even more.
But once the clearance goods disappeared last month, so did shoppers. Analysts say the absence of big discounts — coupled with the higher payroll tax and gas prices that have risen for the past 20 days — caused sales to taper off in the last week or so of the month. Such pressures also hurt consumer confidence last month, which fell to the lowest reading in 14 months, according to the Conference Board.
Cato Corp., which sells moderately-priced women's and girls' clothing, said sales worsened throughout the month because of delays in shoppers' tax refunds and the hit to their income from higher payroll taxes. As a result, the company, which runs about 1,300 stores in the U.S., said revenue dropped 12 percent in January.
"Sales at the beginning of the month were in line with our year-to-date-trend," John Cato, Cato's CEO, said in a statement. "However sales at the end of the month were significantly worse than trend. We think this was primarily due to the timing of tax refunds and the effect of higher payroll taxes."
Overall, January was good for most retailers, though.
Macy's, which runs Bloomingdale's and Macy's stores, said revenue rose 11.7 percent in January, nearly doubling the 6.4 percent increase analysts polled by Thomson Reuters had expected. And the retailer raised its fourth-quarter adjusted earnings forecast due to its strong performance in January.
Gap Inc., the owner of the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic chains that has struggled to regain its relevance, said its January revenue rose 8 percent on strength in its North American stores. That's above the increase of 4 percent Wall Street expected.
Meanwhile, Target Corp., a discounter that sells everything from clothes to home goods to groceries, reported a solid 3.1 percent increase in revenue, helped by strong sales of clearance items. That beat the 1.7 percent estimate from Wall Street.
Despite the strong showing, Gregg Steinhafel, Target's CEO, said its customers "continue to shop with discipline in the face of a slow economic recovery and new pressures, including recent payroll tax increases."
As a result, Steinhafel said Target remains "focused on providing unbeatable value combined with a superior guest experience in both our stores and digital channels."
Going forward, analysts say that retailers may have a tough time luring in shoppers.
"Consumers were shopping and hunting for those clearance items," said Michael Niemira, chief economist at the ICSC, the trade group. "Despite the strong reading, January may be one of the highest points of the year."