Irene Clouds Retailers' Back-to-School Sales

Hurricane Irene drove away shoppers from U.S. clothing and department stores in the last week of August, weighing on monthly retail results, even as chains selling storm supplies saw a temporary boost.

The final tally on Thursday, based on reports from 23 retailers, showed sales at stores open at least a year rose 4.4 percent in August, just shy of the 4.6 percent analysts expected, according to Thomson Reuters.

Given the unusual events that hit consumer confidence in August -- from a Standard & Poor's downgrade of the U.S. credit rating to volatile stock markets to an earthquake and Hurricane Irene -- results were decent, analysts said.

``Despite all these headwinds, consumers still managed to shop for back-to-school at a relatively decent clip,'' said Ken Perkins, president of tracking firm Retail Metrics.

Chains were evenly split between those that beat expectations and those that missed.

Discounters like BJ's Wholesale Club Inc and Target Corp saw a lift in sales ahead of Irene, which hit the U.S. East Coast from North Carolina to New England beginning on Saturday, Aug. 27, causing the worst flooding in decades in areas of New York, New Jersey and Vermont.

Shoppers along the Eastern Seaboard stocked up on necessities like batteries, flashlights and bottled water.

But clothing and department stores such as J.C. Penney Co Inc and Macy's Inc lost sales as stores closed in what could have been a big shopping weekend for families.

Oppenheimer apparel analyst Pamela Quintiliano estimated Irene reduced results at clothing and department stores by 1 to 2 percentage points.

The Standard & Poor's Retail Index was down 1 percent in afternoon trading, compared with a 0.8 percent drop in the wider S&P 500.


August is the peak of back-to-school shopping, the second most important period for U.S. retailers after the year-end holiday season.

Sales in recent months have held up despite weak economic indicators, offering hope for August and the rest of the year. The latest retail data shouldn't derail those expectations.

``You can't be over-exuberant about it, but I think you're seeing steady progress,'' Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said of the retail landscape.

The International Council of Shopping Centers expects overall same-store sales to rise 4 to 5 percent in September, after a gain of 4.6 percent in August.

Macy's, which closed more than 100 stores for all or part of last Saturday due to Irene, said the storm shaved about 1.5 percentage points from its August same-store sales. Still, it posted a 5 percent increase, topping analysts' average estimate of 4.5 percent.

``We expect the hurricane's effect on sales will be substantially offset as we move through September and the third quarter,'' said Macy's Chief Executive Officer Terry Lundgren.

J.C. Penney and TJX Cos Inc missed sales estimates and blamed the storm.

TJX, operator of the off-price TJ Maxx chain, reported a 1 percent same-store sales gain, below a 2 percent forecast. Following Irene, it said business rebounded solidly early in the September reporting period, leaving it comfortable with its quarterly sales and earnings forecasts.

Kohl's Corp, whose sales also came in lower than expected, blamed weak traffic at its stores and said it would focus on lowering prices this fall to ``reverse this trend.''


The monthly sales tally speaks to the strength of consumer spending, which accounts for roughly 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.

The storm's full sales impact will not be known until September's monthly report, since many retailers' August reporting periods ended on Saturday.

Many major retailers that saw brisk storm-related business, such as grocers, Home Depot Inc and Wal-Mart Stores Inc, do not release monthly results.

But those that do showed significant gains. BJ's same-store sales rose 11.5 percent, blowing past analysts' forecast of 7.8 percent, according to Thomson Reuters.

Target beat analysts' forecast for a 3.5 percent gain with a 4.1 percent increase. The company said the pre-storm rush lifted same-store sales by about 0.5 percentage point in August and would reduce them in September by a little less than that. It sees September same-store sales up at a low- to mid-single-digit rate.

While ``the pace of the economic recovery is uneven and uncertain,'' Target had solid results in the back-to-school and back-to-college categories, said CEO Gregg Steinhafel. The discounter benefited from moves such as putting dorm-sized refrigerators next to clothing in some stores.

Costco Wholesale Corp, the largest U.S. warehouse club and the biggest retailer to report monthly same-store sales, posted a higher-than-expected 11 percent rise.

``August was a period like many others for Costco throughout the economic recovery, showcasing an upper-middle-income consumer continuing to be fully engaged in the process of saving where applicable,'' Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi wrote in a research note.

Costco also said legendary co-founder Jim Sinegal plans to step down as CEO in January. (Reporting by Martinne Geller; Additional reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago, Phil Wahba in New York and Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Bangalore; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and John Wallace)