Retailers' September sales up before holiday rush

September sales at U.S. retailers looked solid, not stellar, on Thursday as shoppers finished up their back-to-school buying and put the brakes on more big spending before the holiday season.

While higher gasoline prices and uncertainty about the upcoming election may weigh on shoppers' minds, consumer sentiment has ticked higher, hitting a four-month peak in September.

Sales at stores open at least a year at 17 chains tracked by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S rose 3.6 percent, matching analysts' expectations. In September 2011, such sales rose 6.4 percent.

Results in the department store category were weaker than anticipated, while same-store sales at apparel chains came in ahead of analysts' expectations.

"I think September overall is going to be OK; I don't think it's going to be great," said John Rooney, national retail & distribution sector lead for Deloitte Consulting. A lot of back-to-school buying is occurring earlier in the summer rather than in September, he added.

Retailers including Stage Stores Inc , Costco Wholesale Corp and Gap Inc posted bigger-than-expected gains in September.

Target Corp and Macy's Inc posted same-store sales increases that missed analysts' expectations, and the decline at Kohl's Corp was steeper than anticipated.

Buckle Inc posted a decline, rather than the small rise Wall Street expected. The retailer, which caters to teens, said higher prices had dissuaded female shoppers.

The 3.6 percent rise excludes the impact of an 11.1 percent drop in same-store sales at Walgreen Co , which suffered from a now-resolved contract dispute.

The monthly sales reports give a snapshot of consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the U.S. economy. But they offer a limited view, as Wal-Mart Stores Inc and many other large retailers do not release monthly data. On Thursday, Target said it would stop reporting monthly sales next year.

Target, which sells a mix of apparel and other goods, said same-store sales had increased 2.1 percent, just short of the analysts' forecast of 2.2 percent. The company said it expected October same-store sales to rise in a low-to-mid single-digit percentage range.

October could be a lighter month for retailers as the U.S. presidential debates and a heavy dose of political advertising take center stage.

"I think a lot of people are holding their breath now waiting for an election, and a lot of it is going to be focused on the economy," said Rooney. "Then you'll see that once it clears up, November should be good, and December should be good."

For now, shoppers may focus on buying just what they want immediately while holding off on larger purchases, experts said.

Chains have been carefully controlling inventory levels, and therefore may not have to resort to clearance sales as they prepare for the holiday season. Still, there are discounts.

Carlos Escalera, a 29-year-old handyman from Harlem, said he and the people he knows were planning to spend more this year, but discounts remained a big draw.

"There are more sales now," Escalera said as he shopped for a hooded sweatshirt on Wednesday at the Macy's store in New York's Herald Square.

He is waiting for Black Friday in late November, the traditional start of the holiday season, for a big burst of shopping, he said, and then he plans to spend again right before Christmas.

"I'm not nervous," he said. "The economy is doing better."

(Reporting by Jessica Wohl in Chicago; Additional reporting by Phil Wahba in New York and Juhi Arora in Bangalore; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)