While it's true that August retail sales are striking a depressingly familiar note with most stores, discounters and off-price stores did better than many had expected.
Shoppers were in the mood for bargains, and stores that offered them did surprisingly well. At TJX, for example -- which owns TJ Maxx and Marshalls -- comparable-store sales climbed a healthy 5%, ahead of forecast. "Despite the tough economy, customer traffic counts remain extremely high," the Framingham, Mass.-based chain says in its release. Ross Stores says its sales gained 6%.
And at Kohl's, results also topped predictions, increasing by 0.2 percent -- a gain the Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based chain says was driven by "improvement across most businesses, with accessories being the strongest and women's being the most improved."
Target also posted results that were better than expected, with comparable-store sales falling just 2.9% for the month. The company says that guest traffic was essentially flat, "marking a meaningful improvement from second-quarter trends."
Even Old Navy, the troubled Gap Inc. unit, saw a strong consumer response to its affordable back-to-school looks, posting a 4% increase in comparable sales -- its best performance in more than five years.
And while industry results on the whole are down, the decline wasn't all that steep. Retail Forward, a Columbus, Ohio-based consultancy that tracks retail spending, says sales at its index of stores declined 2.5% in August, a decidedly better performance than July's 4.6% tumble. (In August 2008, the index gained 0.5%.)
At department stores -- a sector that relies heavily on back-to-school duds for the kids -- the picture was not pretty. Macy's same-store sales fell 8.5%, and at JCPenney, comparable-store sales fell 7.9%, although it noted that women's and children's apparel were selling well. At Dillard's, sales fell 12%.
At the high end, declines continued to be the steepest, with both Neiman Marcus and Saks reporting same-store declines of 19.6% for the month, and Nordstrom posting a 7.6% decrease.
Teen retailers did not fare well at all. While the high-end Abercrombie & Fitch felt the most pain, with a 29% drop in same-store sales, results fell 12.1% at Zumiez, 11.2% at Wet Seal, 8.1% at Hot Topic, and 7% at American Eagle Outfitters. Only Aeropostale -- up 9% -- and the Buckle -- up 3.6% -- fared well.
Many stores cited the late Labor Day as a factor, and were hopeful that sales in the first week of September would come in strong.
"In the end, shoppers intend to hold the line on back-to-school spending and their early plans for the December holidays are restrained," says Retail Forward in its analysis, which includes an ongoing survey of consumer's plans for the months ahead. "Over time, however, shoppers continue to give encouraging signs that they are slowly easing their iron grip on their spending plans."