Back-to-school a bright spot in retail earnings

Although the second quarter is shaping up to be another lackluster period for most retailers, the sector is beginning to show some signs of optimism, with several companies highlighting the back-to-school season as a bright spot in their earnings reports.

Mid-tier department store Macy's, which cut its same-store sales forecast for the year based on weakness in the first quarter, said during its conference call that it saw a good start to its back-to-school business across its juniors, kids and active wear departments.

Customers shop for back-to-school supplies at a Target store in Colma, California.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Fellow department store operators Kohl's and J.C. Penney also sounded a positive tone on the second-biggest selling season of the year. Kohl's CFO Wes McDonald said on the retailer's call that the strongest part of July came toward the end of the month—the beginning of the back-to-school period—and noted strength in both juniors and kids. Penney's CFO Edward Record sounded a similar note, saying the last week of the quarter ended on double-digit same-store sales.

Read MoreExpect to spend more on back-to-school this season: NRF

Likewise, Wal-Mart said it was pleased with its early back-to-school performance; Dillard's said sales trends were strongest in juniors' and children's apparel; traffic was up during July at off-pricer TJX; and Urban Outfitters' teen-facing namesake label noted a positive early read on its back-to-school product. The division has been dragging on the company's overall sales as it works to restore its reputation as the go-to retailer for unique items.

"We believe the back-to-school season is showing reasons for cautious optimism," Citi analyst Oliver Chen said in a note to investors.

Strength online and in-store

Both e-commerce and bricks-and-mortar are poised for growth this season. Surveys from consulting firm Accenture and the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) found the majority of back-to-school sales will take place in physical stores—though that hasn't caused a slowdown in online sales growth.

According to ComScore data, July desktop sales grew 14 percent compared with the prior year, "suggesting an improved outlook for [back to school]," Chen said, citing an uptick in mobile sales.

Read MoreThese retailers make the grade for back to school

According to ICSC, retail sales grew 5.4 percent in July year-over-year, with more than one-third of shoppers surveyed by the trade organization saying they had started their back-to-school shopping by the middle of the month. That momentum has continued into August—the month ICSC said it expects the majority of consumers to complete the majority of their purchases—with each week posting year-over-year sales gains.

JC Penney turnaround looking good: Analyst
JC Penney turnaround looking good: Analyst

"The July 2014 trend is probably even stronger than the reported number given how strong last July was—which created a tough year-over-year comparison," ICSC spokesman Jesse Tron said.

Analysts have noted in recent years that back-to-school purchases are being extended through the start of the school year, as children wait to see what their classmates are wearing before making their big wardrobe purchases.

A survey by the National Retail Federation, released Wednesday, found that as of August 12, one-quarter of families with children enrolled in kindergarten through high school had not started shopping yet, up about three percentage points from last year. However, the number of college families who finished their lists during this time frame climbed about three percentage points to 23.4 percent. 

Too soon to issue a report card

Despite early signs of strength, it's still too early in the season to call the season a success. Macy's Hoguet cautioned that back-to-school sales really started to pick up toward the end of July, so "there is still a lot to come."

The performance of the teen sector, which has been battered by the group's preference for fast-fashion stores, also remains a question mark. Lauren Wolfenden, senior advisory analyst at trend forecasting firm WGSN, said on a call with Stifel Nicolaus investors that the floorset at Abercrombie & Fitch, which reports earnings Aug. 28, looks more inspiring that at competitors American Eagle and Aéropostale.

While Wolfenden commended Abercrombie's new fashion-forward silhouettes, combination of fabrics and cohesive offerings, American Eagle, which on Wednesday announced second-quarter earnings results that slightly beat estimates, offered a "shocking" amount of denim—a category that's been lagging as consumers increasingly adopt the "athleisure" trend. 

Read More'Athleisure' trend spells death of denim

Although American Eagle's same-store sales fell 7 percent, analysts sounded a positive note on the retailer's inventory position for back-to-school.

Wolfenden said she was "disappointed" with the selection at Aéropostale, which on Monday renamed former CEO Julian Geiger back to the post and prereleased second-quarter results that included a comparable-store sales decline of 13 percent.

"Everything seemed like a larger version of things you would find in the kids' department," she said.

Stifel analyst Richard Jaffe said he remains cautious on back-to-school due to limited newness in apparel.

It's also too soon to gauge whether strength from back-to-school will translate into a successful holiday. Last year, positive back-to-school sales gave some retailers a strong start to the second half, but demand slowed after Labor Day. This led to overstocked stores, which contributed to the dramatic promotions seen last Christmas.

"I think last year we had a really good back-to-school business and then business died mid-September," Kohl's CEO Kevin Mansell said. "Every year is different. Every year is volatile."

—By CNBC's Krystina Gustafson

Update: This story has been updated to include new data from NRF and American Eagle's earnings results.