"Overall, the month was mediocre for sales," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. "The back-to-school season started late and it never had momentum."
Overall, revenue at stores opened at least a year — a measure of a retailer's health— rose 3.7 percent in August, according to a preliminary tally of 8 retailers by the International Council of Shopping Centers. That's up slightly from July's 3.5 percent gain, but below the 6 percent gain in August last year.
Only a sliver of retail chains report monthly sales figures, and the list doesn't include Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Macy's Inc. and many other large chains. In total, the retailers that report monthly data represent about 6 percent of the $2.4 trillion in U.S. retail industry sales.
But Thursday's tally adds to evidence that while jobs are easier to get and the turnaround in the housing market is gaining momentum, the improvements have not been enough to sustain higher levels of spending for most Americans. Most still are juggling tepid wage gains with higher costs of living.
As a result, Americans in recent months have been shifting their spending to big ticket items like cars and home improvement, which has left little room for clothing and impulse purchases. Indeed, last month, a number of retailers including Macy's Inc., Target Corp. and Wal-Mart lowered their expectations for the rest of the year, citing a more challenging environment than they had expected.
Many stores stepped up discounting in August to get shoppers to buy. Teen retailer Aeoropostale Inc. offered 50 percent discounts on its entire merchandise over Labor Day weekend. Ann Inc.'s low-priced Loft cut prices by 50 percent on select full-price items and added another 50 percent off on sale items.
Conversely, automotive retailer AutoNation Inc. on Thursday issued a report that new vehicle sales climbed 32 percent in August, led by strong sales of premium luxury vehicles. The report from AutoNation followed robust August sales from companies in the auto industry, which had its best month in six years.
Roxanne Meyer, an analyst at UBS, wrote the "overall retail environment remains choppy" in a note published earlier this week.