NEW YORK — Besides old worries about job losses, stagnant wages and falling housing values, shoppers had new troubles in August that were expected to keep them from heading to stores.
They faced higher prices for everything from food to clothes. Wild stock market swings after the federal debt was downgraded fueled concerns about another recession. Then, Hurricane Irene hit last week in the middle of back-to-school season.
Despite those factors, revenue in August was up 4.6 percent at stores open at least a year among 26 retailers — a key industry measure — according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That's in line with the 4 percent to 5 percent that analysts predicted at the beginning of the month before much of the events occurred.
"Retailers weathered a number of storms to turn into what's expected to be a solid back-to-school and August selling season," said Ken Perkins, president of Research Limited LLC.
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Retailers' revenue results are closely monitored because consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of U.S. economic activity and is critical for a strong economy. This month's revenue gains underscore the changing spending habits of American consumers, who now are thriftier but are willing to open their wallets to spend on basics, especially for their children. In August, for instance, many consumers were buying clothes and supplies for their children, giving retailers a needed boost during the second-busiest shopping season of the year.
"Consumers are looking beyond the noise and focusing on their own needs, and to some extent that is helping the retail sector and helping the economy," said Michael Niemira, chief economist at the ICSC. "When you have so many of these events, the consumer seems to be de-sensitized."
Not everyone had gains, though. J.C. Penney and Kohl's, both reported unexpected declines as shoppers continued to veer toward higher- and lower-end retailers instead of those serving the middle-of-the-road customer.