The majority of retailers reported better-than-expected sales for September

The majority of retailers reported better-than-expected sales for September

As back-to-school shopping tailed off in the first part of September, so too did sales for many US apparel retailers. Negative surprises from the likes of Gap, outweighed better-than-expected results from retailers such as L Brands & Zumiez.

First figures from Retail Metrics showed comparable store sales for the US retail sector as a whole grew 5% in September - falling short of its expectations for a 5.1% increase.

The International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC), meanwhile, offered a similar view with a 5% gain. This compares to a 3.5% gain in September 2013.

"The consumer has been cautious in terms of its spending all year, despite meaningful job gains throughout 2014 and looks to be more "event" driven than ever in their shopping," noted Retail Metrics president Ken Perkins. 

Jesse Tron, a spokesman for ICSC, offered a different view: "Retailers by and large enjoyed a stronger month overall compared with August. The overall strength in economic conditions has been driving stronger consumer demand of late, a good sign as we progress into the holiday shopping season."

For October, ICSC forecasts monthly comparable-store sales will increase by between 3.5% and 4.5%.

Winners and losers
All of the apparel retailers who now report monthly sales posted gains in September, with the majority coming in better-than-expected. Teen apparel chain Zumiez's 6.6% comparable store sales increase, for instance, exceeded expectations for a 2.8% gain.

Meanwhile, L Brands posted an impressive 6% increase in comparable store sales, doubling expectations fuelled by an impressive 10% comp at Bath & Body Works which tripled the consensus forecast.

The Buckle posted its fourth straight monthly comparable gain, up 2.2% for September, and beating Retail Metrics' consensus for a 2% increase.

Off-price fashion retailer Stein Mart gave its first monthly positive surprise since April, with positive comparable sales growth of 4.9%, this time beating the Retail Metrics consensus for a 3% gain.

Gap CEO Glenn Murphy, who announced his decision to step down this week, said September proved to be "more challenging than expected", with same store sales remaining flat, missing expectations for a second straight month.

The Gap division saw a 3% September comp decline, which was the fifth straight negative comp at the global division. Old Navy also missed expectations but turned in a positive 1% comp.

And Cato Corp turned in its strongest comps since April, with a 5% increase that doubled expectations. The company now expects third-quarter earnings per share to be at the higher end of its guidance range of $0.08 to $0.13 versus $0.17 last year.

September sales overview
Action sportswear and footwear retailer Zumiez saw comparable store sales increase 6.6% for the five weeks to 4 October. The company, which operates 582 stores, said net sales grew 12.5% to $66.3m from $58.9m in the same period a year ago.

Denim specialist The Buckle posted a 2.2% rise in September comparable store sales. Net sales were up 4.1% to $103.1m from $99.1m last year for the company, which operates 456 stores across the US.

Value-priced fashion retailer The Cato Corp saw net sales rise 9% to $79.7m during the five-week period from $72.9m a year ago. Comparable store sales were up 5% for the company whose brands include Cato, Versona and It's Fashion.

For L Brands, September comparable store sales grew 6%. The owner of the Victoria's Secret, Pink and La Senza brands said net sales reached $853.5m, up 9% on $786m last year.

Off-price fashion retailer Stein Mart recorded a 4.9% increase in September comparable store sales. The company, which operates more than 260 stores, saw net sales climb 6.5% to $119.4m from $112.2m in the prior year.

Gap Inc saw comparable store sales remain flat versus a 3% decrease in the prior year period, but the San Francisco-based retailer, which operates more than 3,100 stores, said net sales grew 1% to $1.48bn from $1.46bn the prior year.