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August retail hampered by slow economy

Arnold Schwartzeneger thrilled the Republican faithful on Tuesday night, excoriating the "girlie men" who question the Bush Administration's claims about the economy's strength. But it's not just Democratic hopefuls who are wondering just how deep or enduring the recovery is. The Terminator's remarks came on the same day that consumer confidence took an unexpected dip -- attributed to concerns over job growth -- and on the heels of data from Wal-Mart and elsewhere in retail-land that point to more shopper anxiety ahead. Most big chains are set to release their August sales figures tomorrow.

Wal-Mart, the mega-discounter, set the market on edge on August 23 when it told Wall Street analysts that it was revising downward its expectations for August, based on slower than expected back-to-school sales. The company is now expected to post a 2 percent gain in same-store sales, not the 2 to 4 percent growth that it had been predicting and nowhere near the 6.7 percent jump of a year ago. August sales were revised downward due to weak back-to-school sales, the effects of Hurricane Charley and a late Labor Day weekend, the retail giant said. Last year, August sales were helped by an earlier Labor Day and distribution of child-care tax credits, analysts said.

Other retailers are also showing signs of slow growth. The Gap is likely to report a 4 percent to 6 percent decline in same-store sales for August, analysts predict. The reason is partially due to the company's lack of advertising for its fall line, but also to a slowdown in the economy and poor jobs growth.

Discount retail giants, such as Target and Family Dollar, have remained "conservative" in their estimates for August sales, says Mark Mandel, an analyst at Fulcrum Global Partners. Target said last week that the company was on track with its early estimate of August same-store sales at flat to 2 percent growth. New York investment bank Lazard forecasted same-store sales growth of only 1.7 percent for the top 50 major retail chains -- weaker than July's disappointing performance.

The sources of the malaise include high oil prices and stagnant job growth, which have eroded overall U.S. consumer confidence. The Conference Board's monthly index slipped by more than 7 points in August, to 98.2, far below economist's forecasts. New job growth figures for July showed a paltry gain of 32,000 in non-farm payrolls. Employment figures for August will be released this Friday. Estimates place the number of new jobs created last month at around 160,000.

So, are we setting up for a weak fourth quarter? Mandel says not -- unless the jobs numbers get worse. He notes that consumer confidence had been rising for four months before the August dip. "It doesn't predict a whole lot," he says. "We look more at job growth figures."

Indeed, earlier in the week the feds released data indicating that Americans are still spending at a healthy clip. U.S. consumer spending jumped 0.8 percent for July, above analyst predictions. That followed a 0.2 percent decline in June.

In addition, high-end retailers seem to be performing fairly well. Some analysts predict Neiman Marcus same-store sales for August will climb a robust 8 to 10 percent. However, the expected poor results of discount retailers like Wal-Mart support claims of a widening income gap and that the have-nots have even less nowadays.

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