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Retail stocks began 2012 with a head of steam that continued throughout the quarter, with many posting record or multi-year highs during the period, amid sentiment that the gains can continue.
For the first quarter, which ends at the close of trading, the Standard & Poor's Retail Index has risen 101 points, or 19%, with the percentage rise representing its best gain since the second quarter of 2003. The move outpaces that of the broader market, with the S&P 500 up 12% so far in the first quarter.
Sentiment about an improving economy helped to fuel retail stocks' gains, as did rather decent earnings these companies turned in during the period.
Retailers with the biggest gains during the quarter include Gap Inc. (GPS) and Aeropostale Inc. (ARO), both up 42%; Chico's FAS Inc. (CHS) up 36%; Macy's Inc. (M), up 24%; Saks Inc. (SKS) up 21%; and Target Corp. (TGT) up 14%.
Target was also among stocks that hit multi-year highs during the first quarter. Others include Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), Nordstrom Inc. (JWN), Coach Inc. (COH), Family Dollar Stores Inc. (FDO) and Lowe's Cos. (LOW).
While some of the easier gains have already been made, there is opportunity for further advances by retail stocks if the economy cooperates, analysts said.
"The environment is still slowly getting better for retailers," said David Abella, portfolio manager at Rochdale Investment Management. "They were able to have pretty strong sales when the economy was weaker, so it stands to reason if the economy improves they should do even better."
Still, the big unknown is how gasoline prices act. If prices continue to climb, lower-end retailers may lose out. Abella cited Kohl's Corp. (KSS), J.C. Penney Co. (JCP), Wal-Mart and Target as retailers that could be pinched by high gasoline prices.
-By Karen Talley, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2196; firstname.lastname@example.org