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Retail Stocks Surged This Year, Making 2010 More Challenging

By Karen Talley Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES NEW YORK -(Dow Jones)- Retail stocks roared in 2009, as investors looked to the sector ahead of a much hoped-for economic recovery. Greater confidence in the future was reflected in the 54% rise of the Standard & Poor's Retail Index, to 406.88 in recent trading. The index of very economically sensitive stocks really began its run heading into the spring, and has risen 86% since its March 6 low. The year's biggest gainers were some of the stocks that took the biggest thumpings in 2008, when the country was in the depths of the recession. The S&P Retail Index fell 32% last year, its biggest decline in at least 14 years. This year's advance is the index's best in more than a decade and was led by Stein Mart Inc. (SMRT), whose 855% gain reflected significant signs of progress by the regional department store after a very rough 2008. Consumers are definitely ending this year feeling better about the future. The Conference Board said this week that its consumer-confidence index rose to 52.9 for December from 50.6 the prior month. The expectations part of the index, which considers conditions six months out, reached its highest level since December 2007. But sentiment about current conditions, known as the present-situation index, fell to its lowest level since February 1983. The uneasiness about current conditions, on top of the run that retail stocks have seen in the past year, could make further advances a lot more difficult. "Investors have been focused throughout 2009 on future earnings recovery," said Liz Dunn, retail analyst at Thomas Weisel Partners. Next year investors will likely focus on "long-term stories with solid fundamentals" instead of lifting virtually all boats in the retail group, Dunn said. Dunn feels investors will like the continuing progress of Nordstrom Inc. (JWN), Macy's Inc. (M), Coach Inc. (COH) and Urban Outfitters Inc. (URBN). About one-third of the retail index's members are trading at more than twice the level at which they ended 2008. J. Crew Group Inc. (JCG) is up 273%, Nordstrom has gained 184% and William-Sonoma Inc. (WSM) has risen 167%. Liz Claiborne Inc. (LIZ), which has struggled mightily with the economic downturn and its own efforts to revitalize brands, has gained 117% this year after dropping 87% in 2008. Discounter Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT), the world's largest retailer, cooled down from an 18% gain last year, to a 4.1% loss in 2009. Last year also saw Dollar Tree Stores Inc. (DLTR) and Family Dollar Inc. (FDO) among retail shares' best performers. Investors bid up all but five members of the S&P Retail Index this year. The decliners included jeweler Zale Inc. (ZLC), which is struggling with a falloff in consumer spending as well as considerable debt. Teen retailer Hot Topic Inc. (HOTT) was another decliner in 2009, as it reduced estimates as the year progressed. Holiday sales, from a number of early indications, came in better than expected after a terrible showing in 2008 as retailers entered this season with inventories more aligned to demand. Given that many retailers also offered very modest expectations for the holidays, a number of analysts feel the group will beat fourth-quarter earnings expectations aided by healthy margins. Major retailers will report December same-store sales Thursday, and could in tandem lift their guidance, as the 2009 holiday didn't turn out like the ghost of Christmas past. -Karen Talley, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2196;

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