Having huffed on their crystal balls, Wall Street's legion of haruspices are in ra-ra mode for the American retail industry, predicting good times for the remainder of 2004, reports the Financial Times.

According to Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, April sales increased year-on-year by 4%, based on returns from seventy-two major retailers. But that figure is one-fifth lower than his forecast of five percent.

Despite this: "The picture is still quite healthy. It was a solid first quarter and we are still on track for the strongest annual performance since 1999," says the seer.

But Niemira warned there are signs of weakness among less-affluent shoppers. "That may well be tied to higher energy and food prices. The discretionary purchasing power of middle-to-lower income households is seeing some constraint and consequently spending less."

Among the retail bulls is the planet's mightiest corner store, Wal-Mart, reporting reported a 4.4% rise in same-store sales, slightly below analysts' consensus forecast of 4.5%. Target, Wal-Mart's discount superstore rival, did even better, achieving a sales hike of 4.9%, although this still undershot its +5.4% forecast.

The bears' brigade includes department store groups Sears, Roebuck (-1.8%), May Department Stores (-8.1%) and discount retailer Kohl's (-4.6%) -- all below analysts' consensus predictions.

Data sourced from: Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff