Necessities top shopping list

NEW YORK — The outlook for the back-to-school shopping season seemed grim Thursday, as retailers’ July sales reports showed an increasing shift toward buying necessities such as food and household supplies at discounters and away from discretionary spending on clothing.

With the benefits of the government stimulus checks fading and jobless claims at a 6-year high, the big worry is how much shoppers — squeezed by high gas and food prices — will retrench in the critical months ahead.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, and Costco Wholesale Corp. posted solid gains. But July results for Wal-Mart fell slightly short of Wall Street forecasts. The company noted that shoppers are increasingly running out of money and projected that sales would slow in August as the benefits from the stimulus checks dry up.

Meanwhile, many mall-based apparel stores including Limited Brands Inc. and Gap Inc. suffered even deeper declines. Luxury stores such as Saks Inc., which operates Saks Fifth Avenue, also struggled with weaker sales as even affluent shoppers pull back.

“Consumers are in a fair amount of pain,” said Ken Perkins, president of research company RetailMetrics LLC. He worries that without the government stimulus money, shoppers won’t have any incentive to splurge on back-to-school merchandise.

“This is going to be a very promotional, challenging back-to-school season,” he added.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales tally of 38 stores reported a 2.6 percent increase in July, in line with the 2.5 percent pace seen since the beginning of the industry’s fiscal year, which starts in February. The tally is based on same-store sales — those at stores open at least a year — and are a key indicator of a retailer’s health.

July’s results met ICSC’s projections for a 2 percent to 3 percent gain, but the pace was much slower than the 4.2 percent gain in June, which was helped by a boost from the stimulus checks. But ICSC’s chief economist Michael Niemira said that the July sales saw a wider gap between low-price operators and mall-based apparel stores.

“You’re definitely seeing a broader pullback on discretionary items,” said Niemira.

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