Despite high levels of consumer confidence and low unemployment, retailers struggled earlier this year.
Consumers went shopping last month, lured to the nation's stores by new fall merchandise, especially apparel and other back-to-school supplies.
After a dismal spring and early summer, many big U.S. retailers reported better-than-expected sales for August. Children's clothes and personal computers were among the top sellers.
``People were spending in August and most of it came in the back-to-school arena,'' said Thomas Tashjian, a retail analyst at Montgomery Securities in San Francisco.
Despite high levels of consumer confidence and low unemployment, retailers struggled earlier this year as unseasonably cool temperatures kept shoppers from buying warm-weather merchandise.
Sales eventually picked up in July, with shoppers enticed by heavy markdowns on seasonal merchandise like air conditioners and sundresses that had been on store shelves for months.
August proved to be another healthy month for retailers. Consumers, who now more than ever buy items closer to when they need them, were ready to purchase clothes and supplies to start the new school year.
Discounters fared best in August, with shoppers picking up everything from jeans and T-shirts to backpacks and notebooks at their stores. Department stores also saw a lift in sales, the second straight month of gains after months of disappointing results.
Specialty retailers also bounced back in August, helped by strong demand for new back-to-school apparel. Gap Inc. did particularly well, and The Limited Inc. also reported better sales for the month.
The Salomon Brothers retail index, the investment firm's barometer of sales performance, rose 5.5 percent last month after a 6.1 percent gain in July. It was up 3.6 percent in August 1996.
Wal-Mart, the nation's No. 1 retailer, said sales from stores open at least a year rose 7.1 percent from a year earlier, while total sales were up 12.6 percent.
No. 2 Sears, Roebuck and Co. said its same-store sales rose 2.8 percent, while total sales advanced 10.4 percent. Sears said its double-digit growth in women's apparel, cosmetics and fragrances was offset by sluggish home improvement sales.
No. 3 Kmart said same-store sales increased 6.4 percent and total sales rose 3.4 percent.
Same-store sales -- sales at stores open at least a year -- are considered the most accurate measure of a retailer's strength. They exclude sales from stores that have been closed and from new stores, which often have disproportionately strong sales.
These figures are narrower than retail sales numbers released by the Commerce Department, which also reflect sales of restaurants and auto dealers. The government's retail sales figure will be released Sept. 12.