June sales heated up for stores, in a sign that Americans likely will continue to spend during the important back-to-school shopping season.
U.S. retailers Thursday reported their strongest sales gains since January, as shoppers took advantage of summer discounts.
Revenue at stores opened at least a year -- an industry measure of a retailer's health -- rose 4.1 percent in June compared with the same month a year ago, according to a preliminary tally of 13 retailers by the International Council of Shopping Centers. The trade group had expected an increase of 3 to 3.5 percent.
The data offer positive signs for the back-to-school season, which is the second-biggest shopping period behind the winter holidays. June is when stores clear out summer merchandise to make room for goods for fall, so brisk sales mean that stores likely won't be stuck with summer apparel they need to get rid of as the back-to-school kicks off later in July.
June's performance was the best for retail since January's 4.5 percent gain and showed a gradual improvement since early spring.
Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council, expects total sales for back-to-school season, which runs through mid-September, will be up 3.1 percent to $42.2 billion. That would be less than the 3.6 percent gain in 2011, but in line with the 3.3 percent pace on average over the past 10 years.
Stores are benefiting from an improving U.S. economy that gained a robust 195,000 jobs in June. Employers have added an average 202,000 jobs for the past six months, up from 180,000 in the previous six. The housing market is also gaining strength. And consumer confidence in June is at the highest level since January 2008, according to The Conference Board.
While big chains such as Wal-Mart Stores, Target Corp. and Macy's Inc. no longer report monthly revenue, the stores that do offer economists a snapshot of consumer spending. In total, the retailers that report monthly data represent about 6 percent of the $2.4 trillion in U.S. retail industry sales.