Many Retailers Topping Views on Late School Shopping

A late burst of back-to-school shopping helped many U.S. retail chains to top analysts' estimates in September.

Woman shopping
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Woman shopping

On average, retail sales rose 2.8 percent in September, topping average analysts' estimatesthat called for a 2.1 percent gain, according to Thomson Reuters.

The results are encouraging because retailers are beginning to face more difficult comparisons with the year-ago period. Also, recent economic reports have been measuring slumping consumer confidence and an elevated savings rate.

However, several retail industry analysts expressed some caution because cash registers were ringing more briskly in the first half of the month, and shoppers were focusing most heavily on discounted merchandise.

"I think you can say that this shows the consumer will keep on spending," Eric Beder, an analyst at Brean, Murray, Carret & Co. told CNBC. "I think it also shows that we’re not going to see a double dip here, but I will say this: this month was driven by a tremendous amount of discounting."

Perhaps most telling: very few retailers used the strong sales as a reason to raise their earnings forecast even though this was the key month of this fiscal quarter, Beder said.

"So I would have to say: take this with a grain of salt, but...these are really solid numbers," he said.

A late end to the back-to-school shopping season is consistent with what has been seen in recent years, and it reflects the fact that shoppers are no longer willing to buy clothes months ahead of when they will wear them.

The strongest year-over-year gains were seen at the department stores and teen retailers, while several discounters disappointed with their results.

Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi said this raises questions about what is to come in October, and in the holiday shopping season, which is the most profitable period of the year for retailers.

Sozzi noted cautionary comments from Wet Seal, which said its business became "more challenging" after week two of the month.

"Weather may have played a role," Sozzi said. "What it looks like though is that the consumer has prepared themselves to pause prior to the holidays, preferring to bolster savings in the lead up to the holidays."

Target, BJ's Wholesale, Kohl's and Gap were among the notable retailers that fell short of analysts' estimates.

Target, which posted a 1.3 percent increase in same-store sales, compared with the 1.9 percent gain analysts expected, also said sales softened as the month progressed.

To help drum up store traffic, the company is planning to promote a 5 percent rebate on purchases using a Target credit card during the upcoming holiday season.

That could be a sign of the times ahead of the holidays, which are expected to be dominated by promotions this year.

Illustrating that consumers are willing to buy when the products and prices are right, there were some very strong results.

Limited posted a same-store increase of 12 percent, solidly outpacing the analyst estimate, which called for same-store sales to rise by 4.1 percent.

Teen retailersAbercrombie & Fitch and Zumiez outpaced estimates by a wide margin.

Luxury chains also performed well, with Nordstrom reporting a 7.5 percent increase in same-store sales and Saks posting a 6.5 percent gain.

A rundown of the results follows:

September 2010 Same-Store Sales

September 2010 Estimates
September 2010 Actuals
Costco Wholesale (excluding gas) 4.8% 4.0%
BJ Wholesale (excluding gas) 1.2% 0.8%
Target 1.9% 1.3%
JC Penney 3.1% 5.1%
Kohl's Department Store 3.3% 3.0%
Dillards Department Store Breakeven 3%
JW Nordstrom 4.3% 7.5%
Saks Department Store 3.8% 6.5%
Stage Stores 1.5% 1.8%
Macy's 3.3% 4.8%
Gap Breakeven (2%)
TJX 1.0% 1.0%
Limited 4.1% 12%
Ross Stores 2.1% 2%
Stein Mart (3.0%) 8.5%
Abercrombie 3.6% 13%
American Eagle (0.8%) 4%
Aeropostale (2.4%) 3%
Hot Topic (3.5%) (2.6%)
Wet Seal (2.3%) (0.7%)
The Buckle (4.7%) 8.7%
Zumiez 12.4% 17%
Walgreen (1.3%) (2.4%)
Source: Thomson Reuters,company reports. Figures in parenthesis are losses.

(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the strongest results came from discounters and department stores. That was the expectation, but when the results were in, the strongest results came from department stores and teen apparel retailers.)