(Reuters) - Stubbornly high unemployment and anxiety about the economy took a toll on top U.S. retailers' sales in June, raising concerns that shoppers are penny-pinching ahead of the back-to-school season.
"In part, this was a function of a macroeconomic environment that is stagnant at best," Macy's Chief Executive Terry Lundgren said in statement.
A steady stream of weak economic reports, stubbornly high unemployment and a volatile stock market hurt shoppers' morale last month, underscored by a tumbling Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's consumer sentiment index.
Lower-priced retailers, like TJX Cos Inc (TJX.N), which runs the T.J. Maxx chain, and Ross Stores Inc (ROST.O), reported some of the largest gains as shoppers looked for deals on designer-brand clothes and home goods. Both retailers raised their quarterly profit forecasts.
"In June, the consumer put on a very cautious hat, they started pulling back," said Keith Jelinek, a director in AlixPartners' global retail practice.
Sales for the 20 chains in the Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S same-store sales index rose 0.1 percent, below the 0.5 percent analysts expected, and well below the 6.7 percent pace a year earlier.
Macy's reported a 1.2 percent increase, below expectations of 1.9 percent. Target's 2.1 percent gain came in just below analysts' projections.
Mid-tier department store chain Kohl's Corp (KSS.N) reported a 4.2 percent decline as overly cautious inventory management led to a merchandise shortage, and the retailer failed to capitalize on sales declines at rival J.C. Penney Co Inc (JCP.N).
Still, Macy's, Target and Kohl's maintained their quarterly profit outlooks.
The Standard & Poor's Retail Index .RLX was up 1.3 percent, compared to a 0.1 percent drop in the broad S&P 500 .SPX.
"The anticipated sales slowdown is here, but it isn't a disaster," said Walter Stackow, an analyst with Manning & Napier, which owns retail stocks. Stackow noted that shares have been under pressure of late.
There were also hopeful signs in the U.S. labor market. Private employers stepped up hiring in June, while the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits last week fell by the most in two months.
The International Council of Shopping Centers forecast same-store sales rising by 1 percent to 1.5 percent in July.
Macy's shares were up 2.9 percent, while Kohl's rose 6.9 percent. Other winners were TJX and Ross Stores, jumping 3.7 percent and 7 percent, respectively.
Same-store sales graphic: link.reuters.com/vax29s
The weak June numbers at many large chains showed how quickly shoppers can decide to put off spending -- and could result in discounts during the upcoming back-to-school season, when parents buy clothes and supplies for school-age children.
"June will unnerve retailers," said Chris Donnelly, global managing director at Accenture's retail practice.
Adding to the risk, he said, retailers bought fall merchandise in February, when the U.S. economic recovery seemed more solid. If they have too much inventory, they may slash prices, hurting gross margins.
"You're going to have a tough back-to-school season," Donnelly said.
Limited Brands Inc LTD.N was a standout in June, reporting a 7 percent same-store sales gain, led by its Victoria's Secret lingerie chain -- easily beating the 2.4 percent estimate. Shares jumped 5.4 percent.
Affluent shoppers appeared to be unscathed by the volatile stock markets. Upscale chains Saks Inc SKS.N and Nordstrom Inc (JWN.N) reported strong June sales, topping expectations.
But sales declined at drugstore chains Walgreen Co WAG.N and Rite Aid Corp (RAD.N), two of the largest retailers in the Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S index.
Walgreen has been struggling since January, when it stopped filling prescriptions for members of pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts Holding Co (ESRX.O). Still, Walgreen shares rose nearly 1 percent.
Costco reported a companywide 3 percent increase in same-store sales, below estimates of 3.7 percent, hurt by unfavorable exchange rates. The warehouse club operator's U.S. sales also came in below Wall Street views. The stock dipped 0.3 percent.
Reporting By Phil Wahba in New York, Jessica Wohl, Brad Dorfman and Nivedita Bhattacharjee in Chicago; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Maureen Bavdek and Andrew Hay