Lured by warm weather and promotions to clear summer merchandise, US shoppers hit the stores in July giving an overall boost to many apparel retailers - but the results shed little light on back-to-school spending plans.

Highlights included a 10% jump in same-store sales at Gap Inc, the biggest US specialty clothing retailer, which saw gains across all units including its namesake Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy chains. There was also a 12% rise at Limited Brands Inc, operator of Victoria's Secret and La Senza.

Sales were up 3.1% at Target, with president and chief executive officer Gregg Steinhafel describing this as "right in line with our expectation going into the quarter."

He added: "Guests continue to respond to our innovative merchandising, remodel programme and 5% Redcard Rewards, driving healthy increases in traffic and sales in a consumer environment that remains quite challenging."

At Macy's, same-store sales rose 4.1%, prompting the owner of its namesake and Bloomingdale's department stores to describe the month as "strong".

"Going into the fall and approaching the holidays, we continue to focus on crisp execution of our core strategies," said CEO Terry Lundgren. "We believe we will continue to gain market share by delivering fresh fashion, quality merchandise and great value for our customers."

Department store operator Kohl's Corporation, where comparable store sales were 1.7% ahead of last year, singled out footwear and men's among its strongest categories during July.

The International Council of Shopping Centers said its research showed revenue at stores open at least a year rose 4.6% - with gains led by purchases of summer clothing during what forecasters say was the hottest July in 50 years.

That said, it wasn't all plain sailing. Shoppers continue to remain cautious and are motivated by discounts.

Value-priced fashion retailer The Cato Corporation, which operates the Cato, Versona and It's Fashion divisions, saw same-store sales slip 2%, prompting president and CEO John Cato to say the results "reflect the continuing economic uncertainty and the related volatility we have seen throughout much of the year."

And Brendan Hoffman, CEO at Bon-Ton Stores said customers "responded favourably" to promotional marketing and "clear message of value," even though same-store sales remained flat with last year.

Emphasising the continuing appeal of "great values," TJX Companies saw "above-plan sales and strong margins in July," with comp store sales increasing 7% in the month.

"Customer traffic was up substantially at all divisions and drove most of the comp increase, which we believe speaks to our on-point fashions and brands at great values and wide customer demographic appeal," said CEO Carol Meyrowitz.

Back-to-school focus
Indeed, all eyes are now on the all-important back-to-school period - the second-largest selling season after the holidays.

Two surveys published in the last month suggest retailers can expect US shoppers to buy more and visit more stores during August.

A report from ShopperTrak, based on its analysis of retail foot traffic, points to a 4% rise in national retail sales during August, compared to last year, providing a much-needed boost to retailers.

While the National Retail Federation's annual back-to-school spending survey suggests average parental spend will rise 10.8% on last year to US$668.62, with $246.1 going on clothes and $129.2 on shoes.

The NRF believes parents now need to replace and replenish what their children might have had to "make do" with last season - but that shopping will start earlier as consumers try to spread out their spending. Some may also delay purchases in the hope of more discounting as term-time nears.

Kohl's CEO Kevin Mansell said the retailer has made "significant progress in improving inventory levels as we enter the back-to-school season and believe we have the appropriate mix of both basics and fashion."

"Our merchandise offerings are resonating well with our customers and our performance continues to benefit from an increased average transaction," added Michael Glazer, CEO at Stage Stores, where same-store sales rose 5.3% in July and 5.4% in the second quarter.

"Looking ahead, we feel good about our merchandise assortments, our marketing plans and our store execution as we enter the back-to-school shopping period," he said.

TJX's Meyrowitz is also in positive mood. "Our inventories are in great shape, allowing us to consistently flow to our stores an exciting mix of fresh back-to-school merchandise at amazing values.

"This, along with our great marketing campaigns, gives us deep confidence that we will continue to fuel sales by driving customer traffic to our stores."