Retailers posted higher-than-expected sales in October, but the growth was uneven, favoring high-end stores over discounters and suggesting that lower-income consumers remain pinched by rising energy costs and sluggish wage growth.
The International Council of Shopping Centers, which tracks the performance of 75 chain stores, said same-store sales grew 4.1 percent for the month, up from a 3.3 percent increase a year ago.
It was the industry's best monthly performance since May and a notable improvement over the past two months. Sales rose 2.4 percent in September and just 1.3 percent in August.
But retail analysts cautioned against using the figures to predict sales in the holiday shopping season. Retailers tend to heavily discount products in October to sell off their fall lines and make room for Christmas merchandise.
The October numbers showed the continuing gap between high- and low-end consumers.
Again, upscale department stores recorded some of the biggest gains, with sales up 13.6 percent at Neiman Marcus Group Inc. of Dallas and 11.5 percent at Nordstrom Inc. of Seattle.
But Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has recorded slow growth for the past three months, said sales rose just 2.8 percent. The country's largest retailer said its shoppers are feeling the effects of escalating gasoline prices and slow wage growth.
"Our customers tell us there is pressure on their discretionary income," said Gus Whitcomb, a spokesman for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart.
Jeff Stinson, a retail analyst at FTN Midwest Research Corp., said "the low-end consumer is clearly struggling."
Minneapolis-based Target Corp., which caters to a slightly higher-income consumer, fared better, reporting a same-store sales increase of 6 percent.
Same-store sales offer the most accurate retail figures because they exclude results from new and closed locations.
It was a mixed month for mid-price department stores, which have limped through much of the past year as they seek new ways to compete with discounters such as Wal-Mart and Target.
Federated Department Stores Inc., the Cincinnati-based owner of Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Lazarus, said sales increased 4 percent.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. of Hoffman Estates, Ill., said sales rose a modest 1.9 percent.
St. Louis-based May Department Stores Co., owner of Lord & Taylor, Filene's and Hecht's, reported that same-store sales dropped 2.3 percent.
The typically volatile teenage clothing market, whose fortunes are often tied to a few hot products, grew strongly in October. Retail analysts credited that growth to high demand for sweaters, denim and knitwear.
Sales grew 29.2 percent at American Eagle Outfitters Inc. of Warrendale, Pa., and 11 percent at New Albany, Ohio-based Abercrombie & Fitch Co., both of which focus on fashions for teenage and college-age consumers.
"The teen apparel market just exploded last month," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a national retail consulting firm.
Tom Lennox, a spokesman for Abercrombie & Fitch, said the chain has seen high demand for men's and women's fleece and denim.
The International Council of Shopping Centers estimated the teenage market grew 7.9 percent in October, compared with a nearly 1 percent decline in September. "That is pretty healthy growth," said Michael P. Niemira, the trade group's chief economist.