Back-to-School Shopping Helps Retailers Make the Grade

Consumers returned to the malls in August for a late back-to-school buying spree, helping many retailers rebound from July's sluggish pace. But analysts still worry that the weakening housing market and higher food and gas prices will curtail shopping in the critical months ahead.

As the nation's retailers reported solid sales results Thursday, winners crossed all sections of the industry and included Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Pacific Sunwear of California and Saks Inc.

"It certainly looks like the final week and a half in August drove strong back-to-school apparel selling," said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics LLC, a research company in Swampscott, Mass. "But I am still concerned going forward. We still have all the macro headwinds."

August's results were helped in part by a growing trend among schools to start classes later, delaying back-to-school purchasing. Still, a slumping housing market, the shrinking availability of credit and turbulent financial markets weigh on consumers, according to the New York-based Conference Board's report late last month.

Wal-Mart (WMT), the world's largest retailer, posted a 3.1 percent increase in same-store sales or sales at stores open at least a year. Same-store sales are considered a key indicator of a retailer's health. The results were better than the 1.5 percent estimate of analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial.

Saks Inc. (SKS), which operates upscale Saks Fifth Avenue, reported a robust 18.2 percent gain in same-store sales, beating the 9.2 percent estimate.

Limited Brands Inc. (LTD) had a modest 1 percent rise in same-store sales, below the 1.4 percent forecast.

Among teen retailers, Wet Seal Inc.(WTSLA) reported a 1.7 percent gain in same-store sales, better than the 0.6 percent estimate.

Pacific Sunwear (PSUN) posted a 9.6 percent gain in same-store sales, surpassing the 0.9 percent forecast.