The nation's largest general retailers reported yesterday that sales were unexpectedly slow in February, prompting worries that the year-old bout of sluggishness in the retail sector has yet to run its course.
"The results do not bode well for the economy," said Fred Wintzer, a retail industry analyst for the investment firm of Alex. Brown & Sons Inc. in Baltimore.
Jeffrey B. Edelman, an analyst with Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc., agreed. "It's definitely indicative of a further slowing in the consumer sector," Edelman said.
Retailers in all market segments, from discount chains like K mart Corp. to the more upscale Federated Department Stores Inc., said their sales suffered last month.
Cautious spending, Wintzer said, could have a ripple effect throughout the economy. Consumer spending is the largest component of the gross national product, and when spending is sluggish, retailers order less merchandise and manufacturers in turn cut back production and may lay off workers.
Consumers have been spending slowly for about a year, and the analysts predicted that the trend will continue despite an expected pickup in sales before Easter.
David Wyss, an economist with Data Resources Inc. in Lexington, Mass., said consumers were expected to increase their savings this year as a hedge against economic uncertainty. "The consumer got pretty spent out last year," he said, adding that the October stock market collapse exacerbated worries about the economy.
February is generally one of the weakest months of the retail year, but last month's results were "disappointing and significantly below expectations for most retail companies," said Jeffrey Feiner, an analyst with Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc.
The nation's largest retailer, Sears, Roebuck and Co., said its sales rose 2.5 percent from February 1987.
K mart said its overall sales were up 0.8 percent, but sales at stores open at least a year -- known as comparable store sales -- fell 1.6 percent. Comparable store sales are considered a more accurate reflection of a retailer's performance.
The rapidly expanding Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reported that its overall sales were up 32 percent, while comparable store sales rose 13 percent.
J.C. Penney Co. Inc. said its sales fell 0.5 percent overall and 1.1 percent among comparable stores.
Federated, the subject of a takeover battle between R.H. Macy & Co. Inc. and Campeau Corp., said its sales slipped 1.2 percent.
Dayton Hudson Corp. said its overall sales rose 16.2 percent, but comparable store sales slipped 1.3 percent.
May Department Stores Co. said its overall sales fell 1.3 percent while comparable store sales dropped 4.5 percent.
Montgomery Ward & Co. said its sales declined 2.5 percent.
F.W. Woolworth Co. said its sales rose 9.4 percent.