Retailers See Role Reversal to Start September (COST, TGT, FDO, WMT, M, JCP, KSS, JWN, LTD, GPS, ANF, ARO, BKE, ZUMZ, HOTT)

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Retailers are reporting August same-store sales numbers today, and on the whole the reports are positive after a very cautious and dismal July. August is prime back-to-school shopping time, the retailers second-largest season of the year. Last year, August same-store sales fell by -2.3% overall and expectations for this year was for overall growth of 2.8%, putting 2010 pretty much on a par with 2008. That’s not a jaw-dropping move.  Among discount stores, Costco Wholesale Corp. (NASDAQ: COST) posted a 5% rise, excluding gasoline sales. Target Corp. (NYSE: TGT) gained 1.8%. Family Dollar Stores Inc. (NYSE: FDO) gained 6.1% during August and 8% for the quarter ended in August. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) does not report monthly sales figures.

Among department stores, Macy’s Inc. (NYSE: M) gained 4.3%, also higher than an expected 4% increase. J.C. Penney Co. Inc. (NYSE: JCP) gained 2.3%, better than the expected 1.6% increase. Kohl’s Corp. (NYSE: KSS) same-store sales rose 4.5%, substantially higher than the expected 2.6% increase.

Apparel retailers were somewhat more mixed. Nordstrom Inc. (NYSE: JWN) saw sales rise 6.3%, against expectations of 5.9%. Limited Brands Inc. (NYSE: LTD) sales jumped 10%, significantly above expectations of 7.3%. Gap Inc. (NYSE: GPS) same-store sales were flat, which was better than the expected -0.2% decline. Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF) sales rose 6%, compared with expectations of 5.9%, while same-store sales at Aeropostale Inc. (NYSE: ARO) fell -1%, compared with an expectation of a 1.2% gain.

Buckle, Inc. (NYSE:BKE) same-store sales fell -3.5%, which would not be good except that analysts had been expecting a drop of -6.5%. Hot Topic, Inc. (NASDAQ:HOTT) posted a drop in sales of -3.7%, significantly better than the expected decline of -6.2%. Another teen apparel retailer, Zumiez Inc. (NASDAQ:ZUMZ) posted a rise of 9.1%, much better than the expected 7.7% growth.

Wary consumers could be waiting for sale prices to begin showing up, or they could be just trying to make do. The sales increases at the discounters, especially Family Dollar stores, indicate that low prices are attracting more customers.

The important point about all this is that last year’s August sales were so lousy that any improvement looks huge. US shoppers are not convinced yet that it’s safe to shop again. And who can blame them?

Paul Ausick