September tops expectations at some retailers

By Jessica Wohl

(Reuters) - Early reports show U.S. retailers largely did a brisk back-to-school business in September, although one chain catering to young women was left to question its strategy as its sales bucked the trend and fell.

Overall, U.S. retailers that report monthly sales are expected to post an average sales gain of 4.6 percent at stores open at least a year, or same-store sales, according to Thomson Reuters. Most of the chains that issue the reports will do so on Thursday morning.

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.

Hurricane Irene, which battered the U.S. East Coast at the end of August, may have shifted some spending in September to home improvement chains.

Holiday season forecasts have been tepid so far as the economy takes its toll on consumer sentiment. The National Retail Federation said on Thursday that it expects sales in November and December to rise 2.8 percent, down from a 5.2 percent rise in 2010.

Chains such as Limited Brands Inc, Buckle and Zumiez Inc posted much better-than-expected jumps in September sales.

At Wet Seal Inc, which sells young women's clothing at its Wet Seal and Arden B chains, momentum was good through Labor Day weekend. Then things became challenging following the back-to-school peak, Chief Executive Susan McGalla said in a statement.

Wet Seal's same-store sales slid 0.3 percent, below the rise of 3.8 percent analysts were expecting. Wet Seal said it expects quarterly sales to fall slightly short of its earlier forecast and its earnings could miss Wall Street's view.

Retailers are doing what they can to appeal to shoppers such as Joanna Polowitz, who said that she lost her job a month ago and thinks the economy is getting worse.

"I'm definitely holding back, only buying necessities, socks for my son, food because it's reasonable here," Polowitz said as she shopped at a Walmart in North Bergen, New Jersey, on Wednesday. "We're buckling down, not going to dinner as much."

Same-store sales at Cato Corp, a value-priced apparel chain, fell 3 percent.

Retailers including Home Depot Inc, Lowe's Cos Inc and Sears Holdings Corp, which sell generators and other storm-related items, do not report monthly sales.

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:

(Reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago, Phil Wahba in New York and Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Bangalore; Editing by Maureen Bavdek)