US: Consumer Services

Retailers Post Surprisingly Strong August Sales


Retailers turned in surprisingly strong monthly sales reports in August, as sales-tax-free holidays and discounting coaxed shoppers to open their wallets and stock up on back-to-school items.


The hot weather, which made August one of the warmest in more than a quarter of a centry, also encouraged shoppers to buy what remained of discounted summer merchandise.

On average, retailers reported monthly same-store sales rose 3.3 percent, toppingestimates that called for sales to rise 2.5 percent,according to Thomson Reuters.

"As we have seen over the past few years, whenever we have a big event, like back-to-school or the holidays, people come out to shop," said Charles Grom, a retail analyst at JPMorgan, in an interview with CNBC.

According to J.C. Penney , sales started off weaker at the beginning of the month but accelerated as the start of school in many states drew closer.

The department store chain was one of the many companies outpacing analysts' estimates for the month. J.C. Penney said sales at stores open more than 12 months rose 2.3 percent, far better than the 1.6 percent increase analysts had projected.

Rival department stores Macy's and Kohl'salso outpaced analyst estimates.

But consumers continue to stick to the basics, said Laura Gurski, a partner in the retail practice at consulting firm A.T. Kearney.

Since the weather was so warm in August, Gurski expects sales of outerwear and other cold weather gear to provide "a very modest opportunity" for retail sales in September.

"Since retailers were still moving summer inventory in August, it's clear consumers haven't begun to get their minds wrapped around the idea of fall weather," she said.

Since retailers were still moving summer inventory in August, it's clear consumers haven't begun to get their minds wrapped around the idea of fall weather.
A.T. Kearney
Laura Gurski

Among the strongest performers was Limited , which posted a 10 percent increase in same-store sales, far better than the 7.3 percent increase analysts had projected. The retailer benefited from strong sales at its Victoria's Secret lingerie chain.

Teen retailers were expected to struggle, and that was reflected in the results from Aeropostale, Hot Topicand The Buckle. All three retailers fell short of estimates as price wars within the teen sectorand high levels of teen unemployment took their toll.

Aeropostale sales fell 1 percent from last year, compared with the 1.2 percent increase analysts were expecting.

The company said it saw stronger sales in regions where students head back to class early, reflecting that consumers continue to shop for items closer to the time when they need them.

Hot Topic missed estimates with same-store sales falling 3.7 percent, while The Buckle's sales fell 3.5 percent. The companies were forecast to post sales declines of 6.2 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively.

Victoria Secret
John Parra | FilmMagic

Overall, retailers that stress value and low prices are performing better in this environment. Consumers remain cautious about spending as unemployment remains high and questions about the economic recovery persist.

Warehouse club operator Costco said U.S. same-store sales rose 5 percent in August, excluding sales of gasoline, beating the average analyst estimate of 3.6 percent.

Dollar store operator Family Dollar Stores said same-store sales rose 6.1 percent in the fourth quarter ended Aug. 28, beating the average analyst estimate of 3.1 percent.

Sales-tax holidays also helped consumers to maximize their savings. More than one-third of the states held sales tax holidays in August, including three large states that did not have this kind of event last year.

All in all, the retail sales reports showed similar trends to MasterCard's SpendingPulse report, released Wednesday, which showed an uptick in total retail spending in August. That report reflects a broader swath of retail purchases and also showedshoppers sticking to the basics and spending on essentials. 

The true test of retail performance will come in the months ahead as retailers face tougher comparisons with their year-ago sales.

A complete list of results follows: