NEW YORK — The back-to-school and fall selling season will be the best in three years as consumers respond to fashionable, colorful and more dressed-up, preppy looks, with J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus and Target Corp. well positioned to benefit, Citigroup Smith Barney analysts said on Wednesday.

Amid the uncertainty caused by higher fuel costs, the presidential election and the war in Iraq, “we believe b-t-s sales will be strong,” equity analyst Deborah Weinswig said at a press luncheon. “The strong fashion cycle is found in key trends such as the preppy and feminine vintage looks, as well as rich colors such as purple and emerald green.”

However, the bullish outlook comes with a caveat: Lousy weather along with more difficult year-over-year sales comparisons may make delivering same-store sales results more challenging. But favorable economic conditions are in place, and consumers are poised to spend even as home mortgage refinancing, which has infused the market with consumer dollars over the past few years, “bottoms out,” said Citigroup Smith Barney economist Steven Wieting.

Wieting estimated that pretax personal income growth would reach $559 billion in the second half of the year. Pretax personal income has been growing at a 3 percent rate, and will continue to do so. Moreover, an improved job picture “can likely replace macroeconomic stabilizers such as tax cuts, unemployment insurance and the effects of mortgage refinancing,” he said.

Regarding the b-t-s season, Kimberly Greenberger, an equity analyst covering the specialty retailers, said “we’re likely off to a slow start, but are looking for a strong finish.”

Consumers shopping the specialty retailers for fall and b-t-s apparel are finding brighter colors, more ways to accessorize “and skirts that are replacing dresses,” she said.

In the teen segment, blazers and shrunken, washed looks are hot, as well as preppy, which has extended into men’s wear. “Denim is also an important category,” Greenberger said, adding that distressed low-riders will remain popular this season.

Weinswig said the b-t-s season has expanded, and goes from July through October. B-t-s traditionally ran from August through September.

On the broadlines front, Weinswig expects some of the top fall trends to include preppy-classic looks, as well as plaids and feminine tweeds and cropped jackets. Her picks for the best-positioned b-t-s retailers include Penney’s, Neiman Marcus and Target.

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