By Jessica Wohl
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Shoppers hunting for back-to-school deals gave a nice boost to U.S. discount chains in September, though the rocky stock market and economic malaise may have curbed some people's desire to spend more.
September is a particularly important time for retailers focused on children's and young adult apparel. Back-to-school shopping is the second-largest retail spending season behind the holiday period of November and December.
Retailers were upbeat earlier in the year as shoppers were eager to spend again. Now, as stores fill their aisles with Christmas trees and other winter items, lingering fears about the economy have been exacerbated by the stock market's worst quarter since the depths of the 2008 credit crisis.
A tally issued by Thomson Reuters on Monday found that analysts expect the 24 retailers in its index -- including Costco Wholesale Corp <COST.O> and Macy's Inc <M.N> -- to report a 4.7 percent increase in September sales at stores open at least a year, a measure known as same-store sales.
"Whether or not you still have the ability to buy something, psychologically it impacts you and it makes you think twice about whether or not you really need to buy something," said Al Ferrara, national director of the retail and consumer product practice at BDO USA.
U.S. consumer sentiment improved late in the month, though worries remained about jobs and finances, according to the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's final September reading.
Same-store sales rose 4.4 percent in September, according to data released by the Johnson Redbook Retail Sales Index on Tuesday. That index measures a sample of large general merchandise retailers.
Click here for a same-store sales graphic: http://link.reuters.com/baw24s
HIT BY IRENE
September's expected increase will come after a 4.4 percent rise seen at 23 retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters in August, when Hurricane Irene crimped some spending on apparel as shoppers on the U.S. East Coast stocked up on storm supplies.
Irene continued to have a bit of impact into September. The storm hit part of the country on Sunday, August 28, during retailers' September period, noted Nomura Equity Research analyst Paul Lejuez.
Even if September is good, Lejuez said he would not be optimistic about the upcoming holiday season.
One potential star was Limited Brands Inc <LTD.N>, said Lazard Capital Markets analyst Jennifer Davis.
She expects that same-store sales at Limited -- which runs the Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works and La Senza chains -- rose 5 percent. Limited itself forecast a low-single digit increase, and the average analysts' forecast is 4.6 percent, according to Thomson Reuters.
Along with Limited, Davis expects sales and margins to expand at Saks and TJX Cos Inc <TJX.N> as all three have compelling and differentiated merchandise and well-managed inventories.
Lejuez said that he also likes Limited and TJX, as well as Ross Stores Inc <ROST.O>. He expects TJX and Ross to raise their forecasts this month.
September sales may also be a bit propped up as retailers have raised prices to mitigate the higher cost of cotton and other materials, making sales in dollar terms look better than sales in unit terms, BDO's Ferrara noted.
The typical lull seen in October and November is "likely to be even more pronounced this year given the macro backdrop, putting sales and margins at risk," Nomura's Lejuez said in a note.
Analysts are not expecting much improvement at Gap Inc <GPS.N>, where September same-store sales are expected to fall 3.7 percent after a 6 percent drop in August.
The biggest gain is expected at Costco, which caters to higher-income families and owners of small businesses. Its same-store sales are expected to rise 10 percent, aided by U.S. sales of discounted gasoline and by its international stores. The wholesale club is set to report September sales and quarterly results on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago; Editing by Derek Caney)