September sales rise at retail chains ahead of holiday rush

September sales at U.S. retailers looked solid, not stellar, 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.

Retailers including Costco Wholesale Corp and Victoria's Secret operator Limited Brands Inc posted bigger-than-expected gains in September sales at stores open at least a year. Thursday's reports also included a sharper-than-anticipated rise in same-store sales at Zumiez Inc , which caters to teens.

Many analysts had expected the first week of September to be strong, as families scooped up clothing and other goods for children heading back to school. Shoppers may also have felt the urge to buy fall clothing late in the month, when temperatures cooled.

"I'm not nervous, the economy is doing better," said Carlos Escalera, a 29-year-old handyman from Harlem as he shopped for a hooded sweatshirt on Wednesday at the Macy's store in New York's Herald Square.

Escalera said he and the people he knows were planning to spend more this year, but discounts remained a big draw.

Analysts on average expect same-store sales to show a mean increase of 3.6 percent for September, based on estimates for 17 chains, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. In September 2011, such sales rose 6.4 percent.

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.

Costco benefits as shoppers drive there for low-priced fuel and stock up on other items. Its same-store sales rose 6.0 percent ahead of the analysts' 5.7 percent forecast.

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.

"There are more sales now," said Escalera. 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 plans to spend again right before Christmas.

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