By Anna Ringstrom
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sales at fashion group H&M fell slightly less than expected in the three months through February and rose in the first half of March as pandemic restrictions were eased in some markets, allowing hundreds of stores to reopen.
The world's second-biggest apparel retailer said on Monday net sales fell 27% from a year earlier, or 21% when measured in local currencies, to 40.1 billion crowns ($4.72 billion).
Analysts had on average forecast a 30% decline in net sales for the period - the Swedish group's fiscal first quarter - according to Refinitiv SmartEstimate.
"Sales development was significantly affected by the COVID-19 situation, with extensive restrictions and at most over 1,800 stores temporarily closed," H&M said in a statement.
"Since the beginning of February, a number of markets have gradually allowed stores to reopen and at the end of the quarter around 1,300 stores remained temporarily closed," it said, adding that online sales had continued to develop very well.
RBC analyst Richard Chamberlain, who has a "sector perform" rating on H&M's shares, said the figures implied that online sales had provided a stronger-than-expected boost in February.
H&M said sales in the March 1–13 period were up 10% in local currencies as many countries, including single-biggest market Germany, began allowing some stores to reopen. However, about 900 of H&M's approximately 5,000 stores remained closed due to pandemic lockdowns as of March 13.
Chamberlain said most stores should be open by mid-April bar new lockdowns in Europe, H&M's main market.
"As such, we see potential for a strong sales recovery in the remainder of the year, with potential for gross margin to surprise on the upside, due to the weaker U.S. dollar," he said.
Market leader Inditex, the owner of Zara, last week forecast a return to healthy sales as soon as lockdown are lifted, as it reported a 70% fall in profit for its fiscal year through January. It predicted all its shops would be open by mid-April.
H&M, whose full December-February earnings report is due on March 31, is bracing for a loss in the quarter after the pandemic slashed 2020 profits by 88%.
Shares in H&M were up 3% in early trading, taking a year-to-date rise to 32%
(Reporting by Anna Ringstrom; editing by Niklas Pollard, Kirsten Donovan)