While the Easter basket may have been full for millions of kids last weekend, the bunny was clearly not kind to department store retailer J.C. Penney (NYSE: JCP ) . Management warned that holiday sales were well below expectations, with a double-digit comp sales decline in the cards for March and a high single-digit decrease in the first quarter.
Truth to tell, Wall Street wasn't expecting much in the way of earnings for the company this quarter -- $0.75 per share or 28% lower than last year. But the reality is looking much worse. Even with the help of an earlier Easter in March, the company warned that $0.50 might be the best it can muster.
Management sounded decidedly gloomy in the press release, saying that "consumer confidence is at a multi-year low," and that the management team intends to "position the company to benefit when a recovery takes hold." This doesn't sound like J.C. Penney expects sales trends to improve anytime soon.
Is this just a J.C. Penney issue, or the first of an avalanche of retail profit warnings? Kohl's (NYSE: KSS ) has been feeling similar pain, announcing February comp sales down 3.8% and offering cautious guidance for 2008. Dillard's (NYSE: DDS ) released fourth-quarter earnings last week, which included a 5% decline in comps and a 70% plunge in profits.
Still, discount apparel retailers like Ross Stores (Nasdaq: ROST ) are making it look easy. And broadline retail sales appear to be holding up. Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) cheered investors with 2.6% positive comps (excluding fuel) in February, and fellow Fool Alyce Lomax recently wrote that the company was back in its element. And while Target (NYSE: TGT ) isn't setting the world on fire these days, its 0.5% rise in February comps wasn't quite as frosty as other retailers'.
I'm not ready to dump retail shares on this news. The economy is soft right now, to be sure, and isn't showing signs of a rapid turnaround. But the consumer isn't dead just yet. The bigger concern for me is inventories and markdowns. There's plenty of time left for retail companies that have bought conservatively to sell through spring merchandise. For those that haven't -- look for more cracked Easter eggs.