July Retail Sales Hint at Solid Back-to-School Season

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Back to school suppliesIt looks like the retail sector could pull off a respectable back-to-school selling season. Overall, retailers on Thursday reported solid sales for July.

Same-store sales -- sales from stores opened at least a year -- grew 4.4% in July from a year ago, according to the Thomson Reuters Same Store Sales Index, which tracks 25 retailers.

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"The back-to-school season is off to a decent start," Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, the retail consultancy, told DailyFinance on Thursday. He predicts that 2011 will go down in the retail record books as the best back-to-school selling season since 2006.

For one thing, the 91% of people with jobs are spending again, he says. Also, disposable personal income has been on the rise, according to the Department of Commerce.

Costco Sales Soar

Discounters were the retail stars in July, posting a gain of 7.1% in average same-store sales, year over year, according to Thomson Reuters. Warehouse club Costco (COST) led the sector, with a 10% increase in July same-store sales.

However, it's important to note that those monthly sales exclude retail juggernaut Walmart, (WMT), the nation's largest merchant, which doesn't report monthly sales.

Department stores grew their July sales 3.4% overall, with mid-tier companies Macy's (M) and J.C. Penney (JCP), as well as luxury retailers Nordstrom (JWN) and Saks Fifth Avenue (SKS), exceeding forecasts, according to the index.

Kohl's Misses Mark

By contrast, Kohl's (KSS) was the only department store that missed analyst expectations, registering a decline of 4.6% in same-store sales. While Kohl's lackluster performance appeared to be a hiccup, retailers such as the Gap (GPS) and Aeropostale (ARO), continued longer struggles in July, posting disappointing same-store sales results.

Meanwhile e-commerce sales climbed 14% in July, compared to year-ago sales, marking the online retail sector's 24th straight month of year-over-year growth, according to MasterCard SpendingPulse, which tracks national retail and services sales trends.

Specialty apparel stores, such as Victoria's Secret and Hot Topic, saw sales rise 6.2% over July 2010.

But while shoppers might be opening their wallets for fashion, appliances, furniture and accessories are another story. Retail sales of these housing-related products "remained in negative territory," hindered by a still-weak housing market, according to the SpendingPulse report.

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