A strong end to the back-to-school shopping season contributed to the solid sales results rung up by many US clothing and footwear retailers in September - but economic and political uncertainty continues to hang over holiday forecasts.

US clothing and footwear retailers benefited from last-minute back-to-school spending at the beginning of September, with results posted yesterday (4 October) showing that business for many continued to hold up after a strong August.

And despite the economic and political headwinds that continue to prevail - including uncertainties over automatic spending cuts due to kick in in January - first forecasts released this week suggest growth will continue into the holidays, the busiest shopping period of the year.

But September serves as an important first gauge for how business might pan out for retailers over the next few months. And according to the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), US apparel chains saw sales during the month rise by 5% year-on-year, putting them among the best-performers.

"September industry sales remained healthy - though were more subdued than in August or for the year-to-date trend," says Michael Niemira, vice president of research and chief economist for ICSC.

He blames more difficult comparisons with September last year, and a focus on back-to-school shopping season in August instead of the more usual and longer run from mid-July to mid-September.

As well as specialty apparel chains, discounters also held up well, with department stores bringing up the rear.

Gap Inc booked a 6% rise in comparable sales during September on the back of gains at its North American divisions, helped by a "strong customer response to trend-right product," according to its CEO Glenn Murphy. Limited Brands, which owns the Victoria's Secret chain, said its September comparable store sales increased 5%

Likewise, same-store sales at off-price retailer TJX Cos climbed 6%, while discounter Target Corp booked a rise of 2.1%.

And at Ross Stores, where comparable store sales increased 5%, CEO Michael Balmuth said business is being driven by the firm's focus on "delivering fresh and exciting assortments of name brand bargains that continue to resonate with today's value-focused consumers."

But Kohl's Corp blamed lower demand for products including women's wear for a 2.7% fall in its same-store sales. And fellow department-store chains Nordstrom and Macy's came in below analysts' expectations with gains of 4.4% and 2.5% respectively.

Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren said combined sales in the two-month August/September back-to-school period "were consistent with our positive year-to-date trend." He added: "We continue to feel good about the remainder of our fall season as we begin to ramp up receipts of fresh inventory for the cooler weather ahead."

Holiday headwinds
The results give some optimism that shoppers will also be willing to splash out during the all-important holiday season, which is now just weeks away.

The latest forecasts suggest there will be growth - but stress it's likely to be tempered by worries about political and fiscal uncertainties.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) points to a 4.1% rise in retail sales to $586.1bn in November and December, which is slower than the 5.6% rise in holiday sales seen last year. That said, the estimate is also higher than the 3.5% average growth over the past 10 years.

"Variables including an upcoming presidential election, confusion surrounding the 'fiscal cliff' and concern relating to future economic growth could all combine to affect consumers' spending plans, but overall we are optimistic that retailers promotions will hit the right chord with holiday shoppers," says NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay.

The ICSC, meanwhile, expects the sales pace will rise by 3.5% to 4.5% in October, and is forecasting a 3.0% rise for the traditional November-December holiday period.

But it warns this year's season comes with a bit more uncertainty than usual.

Cross-currents include a softening in the economy, improving housing prices and markets, rising gasoline prices, a presidential election on 6 November, and the looming fiscal cliff of $500bn in automatic spending cuts to the federal budget and tax increases slated for 1 January 2013.

Niemira believes there is a likelihood that the Christmas holiday shopping season will be held hostage to Congress's deliberations on the automatic federal spending cuts and tax increases.

But he adds: "Despite the cautiousness displayed in our forecast for the 2012 holiday season due to the uncertainty about the automatic spending cuts, Congress has a real opportunity to resolve the issue quickly and amicably to assuage consumer fears, which, in turn, could propel this season's performance far above ICSC's current expectations."

He also notes that there is a close correlation between holiday hiring and holiday spending - and it appears that overall, retailers will add 8.8m seasonal jobs this year, up 0.4% from a year ago.