Retailers' Jumpy January

Before January's round of comps news arrived, Wall Street swirled with dire retail prognostications. Sure enough, comps suggest that consumers are beginning to feel the pinch, and probably will for some time yet. Nonetheless, it seems that some stalwart (punch-drunk?) investors are randomly snapping up shares of any retailer offering even the slimmest of silver linings. Relax, people!

The discounters aren't dead!
The January mix included some surprising disappointments. Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) , which had posted pleasantly surprising comps growth for the last couple of months, slowed down considerably. Its comps increased just 0.5%, instead of the 2% Wal-Mart itself had predicted.

On the other hand, Target's (NYSE: TGT  ) same-store sales dropped by 1.1%. While that's not thrilling, at least it was more or less expected.

Meanwhile, Costco (Nasdaq: COST  ) was a not-so-shocking success. It posted a 7% rise in comps, with its international segment contributing a whopping 19% to the surge.

News of the weird
Color me shocked that Gap (NYSE: GPS  ) reported a 2% decline in comps -- much better than the 6.1% decrease analysts were expecting, actually. Unlike the investors who've driven Gap shares up since, I'm not sure this news necessarily bodes well for the company.

Cost-cutting Chico's (NYSE: CHS  ) stunk things up yet again, with a crazy 22% decrease in January comps. However, shares were rising at my last check. Though the company's plagued by aggressive markdowns and slowing consumer spending in January, investors may be enthusiastic about its plans to slow down store growth to a near-standstill in 2008.

Elsewhere, investors are obviously starting to like American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE: AEO  ) again. Its stock's up a couple percentage points, even though its same-store sales fell 7% in January. The company did at least clear its inventory to investors' satisfaction.

Is now the time to shop for retail stocks?
If consumers aren't yet struggling, they've clearly begun to tighten their purse strings. Wal-Mart noted that gift-card holders appear to be hoarding those cards, rather than using them for instant gratification. And when they do use the cards, shoppers often buy food, rather than splurging on big-ticket purchases.  

I suspect that consumers won't regain confidence for a while yet. (Continued Fed rate cuts and the specter of inflation aren't exactly comforting.) While Fools shouldn't stop investing, we'd be wise to shop carefully for retail stocks, seeking quality companies we can hold for the long run. Happily, many of them are currently trading at reasonable levels.

The biggest discounters, like Wal-Mart, Target, and Costco, all seem to be fairly recession-proof, despite January's mostly disappointing tidings. And even though luxury goods retailers and brands may be getting beaten up in the short term, now may be a good time for long-term investors to examine them more closely. Coach (NYSE: COH  ) , for example, has been beaten down to a PEG ratio of 0.79.

On the other hand, value-priced, long-struggling turnarounds are probably among the riskiest options right now. I personally wouldn't lean toward Gap or Chico's at the moment.

When you go shopping, you want to buy high-quality products that will serve you well for years to come -- preferably at a great price. Fools would be wise to use those same criteria when seeking retail stocks. Happy shopping!


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