Plenty of Retail Blame to Go Around

 | Apr 12, 2013 | 3:00 PM EDT
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March retail sales came in at a disappointing -0.4%, the slowest level in nine months. There are so many places to point a finger, it is hard to choose any one.

Thursday, we were reminded (by the few retailers still reporting monthly sales) that the Easter calendar shift was one culprit. The holiday falling in March vs. April last year shifted store closures. That seems legitimate, but if you don't like that explanation, you can definitely blame the weather. Didn't you hear March was the coldest month in 20 years? Still not good enough? Let's bring back tax hike worries that everyone swept under the rug in January.

As a reminder, Wal-Mart (WMT) raised the red flag not only on increased tax pressures but also on late tax refunds. Lucky for them, rogue emails set the bar low for their fourth quarter, ended in January, before the company reported traffic had turned negative for the first time in five quarters. Surprise January retail numbers were revised downward today.

Despite mounting pressure on consumers and tough comparisons against the first quarter last year, companies didn't hesitate to provide what, in my view, seems like aggressive first-quarter guidance. For example, Target (TGT) and Wal-Mart's first-quarter assumptions imply an acceleration of the two-year trend.

Let earnings season begin. And if investors don't like what they hear, there's plenty of blame to go around.



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