Will Rise In September Retail Sales Carry Into Holidays?

Retail sales rose in September for the first time in 13 months, fueling hopes that the worst is behind retailers that head into the holiday season better prepared for a tough economic environment.

Three reports were unanimous that sales gained, but to different degrees: Market research firm Retail Metrics Inc. said sales rose 1.1% last month, Thomson Reuters tallied a rise of 0.6% and a tally by International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) showed a 0.1% increase.

"Let the retail recovery begin," said Michael Niemira, chief economist at ICSC. "This is the start of a better performance and better fundamentals."

Retailers such as Target Corp. (NYSE: TGT), Aeropostale (NYSE: ARO) and Kohl's Corp. (NYSE: KSS) raised their guidance for the current quarter ending October 31. But the encouragement was reserved as it pertains to the fiscal holiday quarter that starts next month for most retailers. Fundamentals key to consumer confidence - particularly unemployment, which rose to 9.8% last month - are still serious concerns.

"While our outlook for the third quarter has improved, we remain cautious in our expectations for fourth quarter results in both of our business segments," said Gregg Steinhafel, Target's chairman, president and chief executive officer.

Of course, retailers didn't have to do much to beat last year's September, which was relatively poor.

"You want to be careful how much you're reading into the improved numbers," Michael McNamara, vice president for research and analysis at SpendingPulse, an information service by MasterCard Advisors that estimates sales for all forms of payment, including cash, checks and credit cards in an interview with The New York Times.

For instance, jewelry sales increased 1.2% last month, McNamara said, "but that is still about 5% lower than we were in September 2007 and about 10% lower than the sector was in September 2006."

"In some respects the sector has turned the clock back to 2005 sales," he said.

While the bleeding at retailers may not have stopped, it has likely slowed as leading indicators such as the financial markets and consumer sentiment show improvement. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index has risen more than 55% since its March lows, while the Reuters/University of Michigan Index of Consumer Sentiment was up to 73.5, its highest level since the start of 2008.

Among the biggest retail gainers on the stock market today (Thursday) from the news were American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE: AEO), which gained 8.88% to close at $18.14 and Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (NYSE: ANF), up 5.51% to close at $34.46.

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