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Why August Retail Sales Were Stronger Than Expected

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Retail sales surge in August: what happened? Eighty-nine percent of the 20 companies reporting beat, according to RetailMetrics, way above the 64 percent who normally beat. (Read more: Costco, Limited Beat as Retailers Rock in August)

The gain from August of last year was 5.4 percent, above the 4.2 percent RetailMetrics expected.

Everyone beat:

Off-price: Ross Stores and TJX beat, continuing to take share from JC Penney

General Merchandisers: Target and Costco beat

Apparel: Gap up 9 percent, well above the 5.5 percent expected, with Old Navy up 12 percent, Buckle up 4.5 percent

Nordstrom up 21 percent, double the estimates (that includes the Anniversary Sale in July).

So...what happened?

It was strange. Nobody lowered guidance. Nobody complained about the weather. Nobody put on a dour face and said that consumers were being "cautious." Nobody complained that promotional activity was excessive. (Read more: Back-to-School Has Been ‘Terrific’: Tanger CEO)

First, Hurricane Irene barreled up the East Coast at the end of August last year, so that likely supressed sales and helped the comps.

But the most important factor was likely that retailers got it right. The "fashion cycle" really was strong. The clothes were cool. Or hot. Bright, bold colors really did sell.

I know. Seems crazy to me too. But hey, it seems to have worked. (Read more: CNBC's Consumer Nation blog)

—By CNBC’s Bob Pisani

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  • A CNBC reporter since 1990, Bob Pisani covers Wall Street from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

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