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Stores say sales may finally be turning around

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Americans are finally spending a little more, but they’re playing hard to get.

A tally of sales at top stores managed a gain in September for the first time in more than a year. It was a pleasant surprise for retailers, but analysts say shoppers still aren’t coming in the door unless they see deep discounts.

The increase in the sales figure from the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs on Thursday was small — just 0.1 percent — yet significant because many analysts expected sales to keep falling, as they had since August 2008.

Shoppers are hungry for markdowns. Auto showrooms drew throngs of customers this summer because of Cash for Clunkers rebates. Home sales and construction are being fueled by a tax credit for first-time homebuyers and low mortgage rates and home prices.

At stores, they’re keeping an eye out for sale signs.

“The tone is better, and I am encouraged, but it is still a very difficult environment where retailers have to promote in order to get shoppers to buy,” said New York-based retail consultant Walter Loeb. “Overall, it’s going to be a slow recovery.”

By regular measures, it was a weak month. In the previous five Septembers, sales rose an average of 2.6 percent compared with the year before. Analysts figure stores will have to entice shoppers with discounts through the holiday season.

Laura Rogers of Erlanger, Ky., said she and her husband, who has a lawn care business, are doing all right financially but they don’t want to add any more debt. She plans to trim her holiday shopping budget but has yet to decide by how much.

“We’re more worried about what’s ahead. We’re not so sure,” she said.

Overall, spending levels are about where they were in 2005, according to data provided by SpendingPulse, a service of MasterCard Advisors that estimates monthly U.S. sales from all types of payments, including cash and checks.

For the holidays, the National Retail Federation predicts Americans will spend $437.6 billion, about even with the $433.7 billion they spent four years ago.

Kohl’s Corp. department store chain, Limited Brands Inc., which runs Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, and accessories chain The Buckle Inc. all said their September sales rose at stores open more than a year.

J.C. Penney Co., Macy’s Inc. and Target Corp. reported their same-store sales fell, but not as much as they had expected.

A late Labor Day and delayed school openings helped because Americans bought some items in September that they otherwise might have bought in August. And the comparisons with a year ago look good partly because last September was when the financial meltdown struck and sales plummeted.

The year since then has changed many Americans’ habits. Anne Templeton, a 30-year-old in Indianapolis, now shares a Sam’s Club membership with a friend and shops more at outlet malls than at Nordstrom.

She said she has finished about three-quarters of her holiday shopping — mostly buying items on sale.

“I’ve never couponed before,” she said. “I don’t know that I necessarily changed what I buy but … how I buy it.”

Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the shopping centers council, expected a 2 percent sales drop for September. For October, he expects sales to be unchanged from a year ago, a time when they were depressed because of the meltdown. The ICSC’s tally excludes Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“The data supports the view that the recovery is unfolding, but it is slow and uneven,” Niemira said. “The consumer is still very much saving money and spending as little as possible.”

AP Business Writers Tom Murphy in Indianapolis and Dan Sewell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.

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