Consumers who were enticed by warmer weather and deep discounts of up to 80 percent on summer merchandise went on a buying binge in June, helping many retailers deliver the most robust revenue gains for that month since 1999.
But as the economy teeters back to life, the concern among analysts is that the strong revenue momentum for what is typically the second-biggest shopping month of the year may not continue into the back-to-school shopping season as stores face pressure to pass along higher costs for everything from clothing to food.
Overall, revenue at major retailers rose 6.9 percent for June, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers' tally of 28 retailers' results. Excluding gas sales, the figure rose 5.5 percent.
"Promotions were the clear driver this month, and consumers took advantage of some outstanding deals," said Ken Perkins, president of research firm RetailMetrics LLC. "But that leaves a big question mark for July and the back-to-school season. Will shoppers be willing to spend full price?"
Selina Bierra, 32, says she would not. The teaching assistant bought discounted items at Macy's two weeks ago and a pair of white pants for $10 at Old Navy on Thursday. But she snubbed another pair priced at $19.99 because she thought it could be discounted more.
"Today, jobs aren't guaranteed," Bierra said. "My friend was telling me that her work was laying off people before the Fourth of July holiday."
Wall Street Strategies analyst Brian Sozzi said many consumers, particularly at the lower-income levels, feel that way. He said June's performance is indicative of the "rollercoaster" sales trend that has been prevalent this year.
"There continues to be more mixed reads on the state of the U.S. consumer than there are alcohols in a Long Island Iced Tea," Sozzi said. "The spending recovery is far from consistent."
The June gains were lopsided, with discounters and luxury brands benefiting the most and results for merchants serving the low- and middle-income shoppers lagging. The figures are based on revenue at stores opened at least a year, a measure considered a key indicator of a retailer's health.
Discounter Target Corp. and whole sale club chain Costco Wholesale Corp. were among the companies that posted June results that beat Wall Street estimates. Luxury retailers like Nordstrom Inc., Neiman Marcus and Saks Inc. also posted another month of stellar gains, as wealthy shoppers have gone back to spending.
At the same time, J.C. Penney, which targets the middle income shopper, registered a sales gain that came in below analysts' projections and released a disappointing profit outlook. Bon-Ton Stores Inc., another mid-brow chain, posted a decline.
Fred's Inc. reported that sales fell for the month and now expects its second-quarter net income to land in the lower half of its forecast range. It said its low-income shoppers are having a harder time stretching their dollars to the next payday.
Fred's CEO Bruce Efird said in a statement that the "paycheck cycle," when financially stressed shoppers pull back in the days before they get their paycheck and then step up their spending when they get paid, was pronounced during the final weeks of June. But he said July 1 was the highest single day of sales so far this year.
"June sales reflected the volatility experienced with our customers' purchase patterns and demonstrated the broader decline in consumer sentiment that has been reported for the month," he added.
June is historically the second most important month on a retailers' sales calendar behind December. During the month, stores typically clear out summer merchandise to make room for fall goods. But this time, it took deeper discounts than usual to get shoppers to buy amid worries about the economy.
Teen retailer Aeropostale, for example, offered discounts of up to 80 percent, plus an extra 30 percent off on summer items, according to Dan de Grandpre, editor-in-chief of Dealnews.com. A year ago, Aeropostale offered up to 70 percent off, he said.
Still, the revenue results are welcomed news for retailers, which had been hurt in some previous months by consumers' hesitance to loosen their purse strings.
Most of the spring, shoppers, particularly in the low-to-middle income brackets, shrugged off buying discretionary items as gas prices neared $4 per gallon in late April and early May. Gas prices dropped almost 42 cents from a three-year high set earlier this year, and averaged $3.67 per gallon, according to AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service.
But analysts fear that retailers have not quite turned a corner heading into the back-to-school shopping season, a period that accounts for 16.1 percent of annual retailers' revenue, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. After all, gas prices are still 35 percent higher than last year at this time.
Moreover, prices in the food aisle remain high and this fall, shoppers will be seeing the price tags of fashion and accessories rise as retailers try to offset higher labor costs in China and soaring prices of raw materials like cotton. Retailers, which had already raised prices on select items, are expected to expand those increases.
Additionally, shoppers' biggest concerns __ a weak job recovery and stagnant wages __ continue to weigh on their buying decisions. These worries sent consumer confidence to a seven-year low in June, according to the Conference Board's survey released last week.
In fact, consumer confidence has never been this low in the 24th month of a recovery, according to David A. Rosenberg, chief economist and investment strategist at the Toronto-based money management firm Gluskin Sheff. Historically at the two-year mark, confidence is at 94, not 58.5, which was recorded by The Conference Board's June survey.
AP Business Writer Joseph Pisani contributed to this report from New York.