Byline: Valerie Seckler / With contributions from Thomas J. Ryan

NEW YORK — Confident consumers, bullish investors and classic fashions are stoking apparel sales, said analysts, who estimate that August same-store sales were ahead 3.5 to 4.7 percent above last year’s.
Most major chains report August sales on Thursday.
“Back-to-school is off to a good start,” said Richard N. Baum, analyst at Goldman, Sachs & Co. “We expect most apparel retailers to meet or exceed their August sales plans.”
Goldman is forecasting that the 13 apparel, off-price and direct mail retailers in its Apparel Same-Store Index will have average August sales increases of 4 percent — up from 2.8 percent growth last year. In July, comps in the Goldman group climbed 4.6 percent, versus 2.5 percent in July 1996.
“The August numbers will probably be a bit below July but also a bit less promotional,” Baum noted. “They should help third-quarter profits, even though it’s only the first month of the period.”
“We’re continuing to get strong growth in consumer buying power,” said Robert Buchanan, retail analyst at NatWest Securities. “This, plus a palatable fashion offering, is propelling business. Fashion this fall is much easier to sell than the gaudy offerings we saw in the first half for spring and summer.”
The 20 chains in NatWest’s same-store index are expected to produce sales growth averaging 4.7 percent. The index climbed an average of 3.7 percent in August 1996. In July, promotions drove the NatWest index up 5.2 percent, from year-ago growth of 2.6 percent.
Robust business is projected to continue at value-driven chains.
NatWest is estimating that comps at Target Stores, for instance, will jump 7 to 8 percent, topping the discounter’s 4 to 6 percent plan. Smith Barney Inc. is predicting Kmart’s comps will surge 6.5 percent, beating the chain’s 4 to 6 percent budget. And Goldman is forecasting off-pricer TJX will exceed its planned 7 to 9 percent monthly increase.
Goldman also sees strong August comps at Intimate Brands Inc., forecasting it will meet or exceed its target of 4 to 7 percent, and at Gap Inc., projecting it will hit the planned range of 4 to 7 percent growth.
At Gap Stores, Banana Republic and GapKids, August business was fueled by aggressive pricing and in-depth basics, stepped-up advertising and in-store promotions, Baum reported.
Also maintaining momentum are upscale stores such as Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, said analysts. Buchanan estimated that Neiman’s will register same-store growth of 4 to 5 percent on top of a 7.7 percent surge last year.
“There is good early fall business at Neiman’s and Bergdorf’s,” Buchanan said. “They have powerfully merchandised a tremendous lineup of men’s and women’s resources.”
Nordstrom’s comps will climb around 3 to 4 percent for August, estimated Buchanan. “They’re on a roll,” he added. “They were up 9.3 percent in July.”
However, Buchanan estimated that Saks’ comps will add just 1 to 2 percent, versus a 13.2 percent increase last August. “They continue to struggle,” the analyst said. “We believe that they have been late to get fall goods and that they’re continuing to clear leftovers from their disappointing spring/summer season.”
Kimberly K. Walin, analyst at Furman Selz, pointed out that sales for Neiman’s and Saks improved in the second half of August, with the arrival of more fall goods in the stores. She sees Saks posting a same-store increase of 2 to 3 percent for the month.
Walin expects most department stores to hit their August sales plans, with comps at May Department Stores Co. showing the strongest growth in the sector, 5 to 6 percent. May Co. had planned a 3 percent uptick, according to Smith Barney’s retail index.
“Trends for the month look good as momentum from July continues with a positive consumer response to fall apparel,” Walin said. “Bridge business was soft in spring, but product for fall looks much more salable; it’s a classic, more conservative look.
“It’s early still, but it’s clearly moving.”
Kohl’s Corp. also may top its August plan of 5 to 6 percent growth, with Smith Barney estimating the chain’s comps will soar 6 to 9 percent. Last year, Kohl’s had an 8.9 percent increase.
Walin sees Sears’ same-store sales rising 1 to 2 percent, with the gains hindered by sales declines at its off-the-mall home and auto concepts. Comps at Sears’ full-line stores’ are expected to rise 4 percent, with apparel gains up the mid-single digits.
Among other department stores, Walin estimated comps will climb 3 to 5 percent at Proffitt’s Inc.; 3 to 4 percent at Dillard’s Inc.; and 3 percent at Federated Department Stores. She’s projecting flat comps for J.C. Penney.
Smith Barney estimates the discount and department store chains in its index will post an average comp-store increase of 5.3 percent, up from 3.8 percent last year.
“Generally, I think the August numbers will come in strong, so there could be some upside in our 4.7 percent average increase we’re forecasting,” Buchanan said.
“I expect the positive momentum to continue into the holiday selling season,” Buchanan added. “Christmas is looking excellent at this point.”