If you were looking for a clear signal about how department stores are faring in the current retail environment, you didn’t get it from their latest batch of earnings results.

Kohl’s Corp. on Tuesday reported that comparable sales rose 3.6 percent in the first quarter compared with a year earlier, thanks to strength in categories such as activewear and home goods. Coupled with results from Macy’s Inc. last week that blew the doors off analysts’ expectations, you could convince yourself that this format isn’t doomed after all. But Nordstrom Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. gave you reasons to second-guess all that, as they barely eked out comparable sales growth despite strong consumer sentiment. Plus, the news on Tuesday that J.C. Penney CEO Marvin Ellison is jumping ship to lead Lowe’s Cos. doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

But if you boil all the latest numbers and executive commentary down, they do offer at least one overarching message, and it’s this: Amid major turbulence in retail, department stores are figuring out how to survive. They just haven’t discovered the formula yet that will allow them to truly thrive.

Take Kohl’s. It’s good that the retailer was able to strengthen its gross margin and deliver a third consecutive increase in comparable sales. But the chain was up against rather easy comparisons, as its first quarters in the…