NEW YORK — The nation's major retailers posted unimpressive sales gains in September despite a week of back-to-school sales before the Sept. 7 Labor Day holiday that was supposed to boost store revenues sharply, retail analysts said Thursday.
Sears, Roebuck, the nation's largest retailer, said its sales for September were 6% higher than the same period a year ago. For the first 35 weeks of the retail fiscal year, Sears' sales were up 3.7% from a year ago.
K mart reported gains of 7.3% for September and 7.9% for the 35-week period. Sales at K mart stores open at least a year were up 3.8% for both periods.
J. C. Penney said sales increased 8.5% in September and 4.7% for the 35-week period.
Wal-Mart Stores, the rapidly growing discount chain, said its September sales jumped 36%, while its sales for the 35-week period rose 35%. Sales at stores open more than a year increased 13% in September and 12% for the 35-week period.
Carter Hawley Hale Stores of Los Angeles reported sales for its five department store divisions rose 3.8% in September and 5.4% for the first 35 weeks of the year.
Federated Department Stores said sales, excluding its supermarket group, were were up 6.7% in September and 5.7% for the year to date.
Dayton Hudson reported an 11.9% increase in September sales and a 13.7% rise in year-to-date sales. However, sales at stores open at least a year were unchanged in September and up 3% for the 35-week period.
May Department Stores said its September sales jumped 8.7% and 35-week sales were 9.1% higher.
F. W. Woolworth said its domestic sales improved 14.7% in September and 7.7% over the 35 weeks, and Montgomery Ward reported an 11.7% rise in last month's sales and a 7.3% increase for the 35 weeks.
"Mediocrity is the tone for the year," said analyst Adraine Tom of Pershing & Co.
The monthly sales figures, which are reported by the individual retailers on the same day, are a key measure of consumer spending, an important economic gauge that accounts for roughly two-thirds of the gross national product.
Analysts laid the blame for the weak sales on consumer and retailer confusion over new fashion lines, higher prices and high levels of consumer debt, all of which curbed shoppers' spending ability.
Contrary to most U.S. companies, retailers end their third quarter on Oct. 31, and most analysts expect generally sluggish results for that quarter as well.
"There will be a general slowdown in retail earnings in the third quarter, below what they reported in the first half, because of poor August and September sales," said analyst Monroe Greenstein of Bear, Stearns & Co.
Total September retail sales rose 4.4% over last year, according to analyst Edward F. Johnson of Johnson Redbook, compared to an expected 5% to 6% gain.
"The numbers were bad," Greenstein said. "September sales should have been good if for no other reason than a good part of the month was the back-to-school season."
MAJOR RETAILERS' SALES IN SEPTEMBER
In millions Year % of dollars 1987 ago change Sears 2,810 2,651 +6.0 K mart 2,267 2,112 +7.3 J.C. Penney 1233, 1,136 +8.5 May Dept. Stores 964.1 887.3 + 8.7 Federated* 801.6 751.4 +6.7 Dayton Hudson 871.0 778.2 +11.9 Wal-Mart Stores 1,207 888.0 +36.0 Woolworth** 392.0 341.0 +14.7 Montgomery Ward 426.6 382.0 + 11.7 Carter Hawley Hale 231.1 222.6 + 3.8
* Excludes supermarket sales.
** Excludes foreign sales.