US customers flocked to the shops in March

US SHOPPERS bought spring clothing along with more expensive food and petrol in March, pushing sales at many chains up more than expected.

Retailers such as Costco Wholesale blew past forecasts, but Gap was one of just four chains to miss expectations.

US retailers overall had been expected to show their first same-store sales decline since August 2009, in part because Easter falls three weeks later than last year, which delays some spring purchases.

But sales at stores open at least a year rose 1.7 per cent in a tally of 25 retailers, topping expectations of a 0.7 per cent decline.

Gap was a notable outlier. Its same-store sales fell 10 per cent, or 3 percentage points more than expected.

The clothing retailer blamed some of the weakness on the earthquake in Japan, where it has more than 150 stores.

Gap expects the problems in Japan to cut first-quarter earnings by about 4 cents per share, bringing them below the analysts’ average estimate of 44 cents.

Costco’s sales at stores open at least a year jumped 13 per cent. Analysts had expected a 7.4 per cent increase.