Shoppers hit the malls in September to grab last-minute deals on fall clothes for back-to-school, producing solid sales gains for retailers, data showed Thursday.
Sales at stores open at least a year rose 3.9%, vs. a year earlier, said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics. Analysts forecast a 3.7% rise. The results exclude drugstore chains, which saw a combined decline of 8.4%.
Fifty-five percent beat views, in line with the historical average.
Also among the standouts was Costco Wholesale (COST), which saw a 6% rise in comps, beating views for the third month in a row.
Among the notable misses were giant department store operator Macy's (NYSE:M), value peer Kohl's (KSS) and high-end peer Nordstrom (JWN). Department store comps overall rose just 1.4%, about half of what analysts expected.
September's spending pace marked a slowdown from August's 5.9% pop as the back-to-school catalyst faded somewhat, said Perkins, and consumers retrenched ahead of the upcoming Christmas holiday. Retailers also faced a tough comparison to last September, when sales leapt 5.8%.
"It was a robust back-to-school season," said Perkins.
Strong back-to-school selling from August carried over into the first half of September, fueled by apparel fashions that were very well received.
Retailers kept inventory levels in pretty good shape, said Perkins. So there were no "fire sales.
Rising home and stock prices have lifted consumer net worth, causing consumers to feel better about making discretionary purchases, Perkins said.
He said the robust back-to-school season and the stock market rally bode well for the end of the year.
"Those two things are in place and should set up well for a solid holiday shopping season," Perkins said.
Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, also computed September's comps to be up 3.9% vs. a year ago.
"The underlying trends continue to look pretty healthy," Niemira said. "Consumers can be enticed to spend if they see value and fresh merchandise. Retailers have focused on keeping new merchandise flowing and consumers seem to be interested.
Still, consumers remain cautious and tend to be influenced by the latest news, Niemira said.
"One of the big questions is how much will consumers be affected this holiday by the background political issues," Niemira said.
He expects November-December same-store sales to rise 3% vs. a year ago. That compares to a 3.3% holiday comps gain in 2011.
Niemira sees October comps up 3.5% to 4.5% vs. a year earlier, excluding drugstores.
Shares of Gap, Macy's, Nordstrom and TJX rose 1% or less Thursday. Kohl's stock lost 2.5% while Ross fell nearly 2%.