Brian Hamilton, who runs researcher Sageworks.com and screens stocks for underlying fundamental strength, likes Men's Warehouse, where sales are rising with strong cash flow and positive net income. Last week, the company saw shares rise after the firm expressed confidence in its first-quarter guidance.
Specialty retailers as a whole might not be so lucky. Oppenheimer's Meyer remains generally downbeat, noting that in the last recession, a weighted average of her group underperformed the S&P 500 by 25 to 35 percent. It's off just 10 to 15 percent in this downturn. She predicts any rebate-inspired rally will simply be a "head fake" before the next leg down.
One short-term exception, she says, could be urban fashion retailer Citi Trends. The company saw notable one-time gains during both the last tax rebate and after government checks were cut following Hurricane Katrina, when same-store sales jump above 20 percent from single digits in earlier months. "Citi's customers are used to spending their disposable income on clothing," she says.
Better bets remain the fastest growers that have managed to buck much of the sector slowdown already. There, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew top Meyer's list of picks. "They are absolutely on top of their game and poised to have a terrific year," she said of J. Crew, while at Urban, "you would never know we're in a recessionary environment based on traffic in their stores."