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Apparel retail is in recovery, but 'pressures remain'

Dive Brief:

· Apparel retail appears to be in recovery in light of same-store sales improvements over the holidays, but "pressures remain," according to a report from Moody's Investors Service. Gains at department stores like Kohl's, Macy's and J.C. Penney bode well for brands like Under Armour and Fossil, according to the report, which was emailed to Retail Dive.

· Department stores have a few new strengths, according to another Moody's report also emailed to Retail Dive. Department stores began the season with lean inventories, colder weather was more conducive to seasonal sales than last year, and the U.S. economy boosted consumer confidence, Moody's analysts noted.

· Big-box retailers mostly held their own, though it's still too early to call the fate of bankrupt Toys R Us, according to Moody's. Best Buy and Walmart were winners, along with Target, which, by virtue of healthy holiday sales passed "an early litmus test" of its many investments announced last year.

Dive Insight:

In all, holiday shopping season reports point to a pretty happy season — at least compared to the past few.

Holiday sales increased a record 4.9% this year, according to the latest Mastercard SpendingPulse report. Kohl's had a banner year, with same-store sales up 6.9% in November and December, Target same-store sales rose 3.4% in the period, posting gains across all of its core merchandise categories, and specialty retailer American Eagle beat expectations, to name a few.

But it's not clear that stronger holiday sales will translate into higher margins, Moody's analysts warn. "Promotional activity started very early this season, so it is possible that some of the top-line growth that is obvious thus far may be driven by margin-busting promotions," Charlie O'Shea, Moody's lead retail analyst and co-author of the report, said in a statement.

While increases in online spending helped boost sales, the higher costs of fulfillment could extract some of the joy. Plus, O'Shea questioned the size of the increase, and noted that a portion of retail growth expectations is baked in.

"Online spending continues to help fuel the top line, but it's too soon to say whether online holiday sales will approach the high-teens year-over-year growth threshold, which given increased spend and emphasis by brick-and-mortar retailers, seems reachable," he said. "Some initial media reports have suggested growth closer to 14%, which we would view as unimpressive given the increased focus. Embedded in our online growth expectations is explosive growth via mobile applications, which is logical given the increasing proliferation and 'quality' of smartphones, as well as increased spending by retailers on this popular application."

Among the best news in Moody's reports is the notion that the holiday cheer will keep on giving. "[D]ue to the heavy spend in the consumer electronics sub-segment surrounding the Super Bowl, we do not consider the holiday season to be over yet," O'Shea said, adding that there are still "important days ahead" for Best Buy, Amazon, Walmart, Target and Costco Wholesale, among others.

Another date to remember in coming weeks is the first day in February. Like the second day, when a ground hog's behavior is expected to portend the length of the wait until spring, Amazon's Feb. 1 earnings report will serve as a signal to observers about how retailers really fared this year.

"If its margins are low, this could be bad news for other retailers that may have tried to compete on price," O'Shea said. "If margins are reasonable, this could indicate that Amazon scaled back promotions to actually make money from its retail business — potentially good news for others as well."

Meanwhile, store closures this year will, unsurprisingly, remain concentrated among the weaker players like Sears and Bon-Ton, according to the report. Sears in the new year already announced yet another 100 store closures, on top of some 400 last year. And while Bon-Ton last year said it would shutter some 40 stores, and is now reportedly on the brink of bankruptcy.

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