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Stores getting a boost from warm weather

Anne d'Innocenzio, AP Retail Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Though painful for retailers early on, this winter's warm weather later turned into a boon.

Sales of cold-weather gear were well below expectations, leaving stores with piles of boots and coats and snow shovels to mark down and push out in December and January. But warm-weather items started selling well in February, long before they usually do.

The latest retail sales data from market research firm Planalytics Inc., whose clients include major discounters, department stores and clothing chains, show brisk sales of shorts, live plants and other springtime goods from Feb. 1 through Tuesday. Planalytics uses weather patterns to advise stores what they should buy to sell to customers.

Stores often get a big lift from the arrival of spring, but this year's unusually high temperatures brought that boost sooner than usual. Spring didn't officially begin until Tuesday.

"Warm weather matters more than ever," in this economy, says Scott A. Bernhardt, chief operating officer of Planalytics, which held a conference call Thursday with members of the news media and its retail clients.

It said sales of T-shirts rose 8 percent from a year earlier, while sandals rose 4 percent and sales of shorts rose 6 percent. Live plants have enjoyed a 10 percent gain. The figures compare sales at stores open at least a year, a key indicator of retailers' financial health because it isn't skewed by recent store openings and closings.

Similarly, the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs Weekly Chain Store Index showed Tuesday that revenue at stores open at least a year rose 3.3 percent for the week that ended Saturday. The index includes 24 major stores including Macy's Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp.

Retailers plan to report April 5 on their sales this March compared with a year earlier. ICSC expects an overall rise of anywhere from 3 percent to 5 percent. A gain of at least 3 percent is considered solid.

Analysts usually look at March and April combined to get a better picture of spending — in part because of the weather changes but mostly because the Easter and Passover holidays, which can produce significant revenue, shift between the months from one year to the next.

Planalytics' Bernhardt said this could be the warmest March since weather data started being tracked 117 years ago.

Whether shoppers will keep spending all spring — or perhaps the sales just came early this year — isn't yet known. Another key question is whether rising gas prices will make shoppers pull back on other items.

"We will continue to watch the effect of rising gasoline prices on consumers' discretionary budgets in the coming weeks," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the ICSC.