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Retailers report solid sales in July

NEW YORK - Scorching heat gave the nation's retailers an unexpected sales bounce in July, but the outlook for

the back-to-school season remained muddled, with higher energy prices and interest rates still expected to challenge shoppers in the months ahead.

As retailers reported their sales results Thursday, stores that met or surpassed Wall Street expectations included Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Limited Brands Inc., Nordstrom Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. Inc.

Stragglers included Target Corp., usually a top performer, and Gap Inc., which has struggled to find the

right fashion formula for months. And the teen sector proved to be a mixed bag; winners included Bebe Stores Inc., while losers included Pacific Sunwear of California Inc.

Overall, though, ''things look good. ... I feel like the consumer is looking backward and still seeing good times,'' said Richard Jaffe, a retail analyst at Stifel Nicolaus, noting that shoppers are still enjoying job security.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales tally of 60 stores rose 3.5 percent, above the 2.5 percent estimate. The tally is based on same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year. Same-store sales are considered a key measure of a retailer's health.

July's results surprised retailers, who have been bracing for a second-half slowdown. Merchants' anxiety had increased in June when same-store sales growth stalled to a 2.6 percent pace. Still, July's gains fell short of the 3.8 percent pace since February, the beginning of retailers' fiscal year.

But analysts warned against putting too much weight on the results for July, one of the least important months in the retail calendar and a time when stores

are clearing out summer

goods to make room for fall

merchandise.