American consumers might be gloomy about the economy, but they appear to be starting to shop their woes away.
The nation's major retailers reported yesterday that September brought healthy sales -- robust enough that some analysts saw them as the first bluebird of an economic spring.
Many companies, including some that had been stumbling along in recent months, posted double-digit year-to-year gains in stores that were also open in September last year.
J. C. Penney, No. 4 in the industry, led the way among the nation's major retailers, as it has most of the year, with a 14.4 percent gain in comparable store sales.
Wal-Mart Stores, the nation's largest retailer, posted a typically healthy 12 percent increase. Even struggling No. 3 Sears rang up a respectable 5.3 percent gain.
The numbers weren't quite as strong as they might appear at first glance, however.
This year's September figures include the Labor Day weekend, while last year's Labor Day sales were counted as part of August.
Kenneth M. Gassman Jr., a retail analyst with Davenport & Co. in Richmond, said 2 or 3 percentage points of each retailer's comparable-sales figure could be attributed to the calendar.
In addition, some of the gains came from retailers taking hefty markdowns on merchandise that didn't sell during a poor August.
Even taking those factors into account, most retail industry experts were cheered by the numbers, which apparently contributed to a 23.78-point gain in the Dow Jones industrial average.
Otto Grote, a veteran analyst with Derby Securities, hailed the results as "sensational."
"This is a strong indication we're getting an upturn," Mr. Grote said. "These numbers are well ahead of what the economists and other soothsayers say."
Mr. Gassman was also upbeat. "I think this is a harbinger for the upcoming holiday selling season," he said. "I think consumers are going to pat themselves on the back and reward themselves for their austerity the last three years."
Tom Saquella, president of the Maryland Retail Merchants Association, was cautiously upbeat about sales trends here. "We know there's a lot of pent-up demand out there,"he said.
But Jason Bram, an economist with the Consumer Research Center of the Conference Board, threw some cold water on such optimistic readings. "There is pent-up demand but you can have pent-up demand for a long time," he said.
Consumer confidence and the labor market remain depressed, and the retailers' reports are "neutral in terms of the general trend," he said.
While Americans were out spending in September, they continued to shop cautiously. Most of the big gainers were off-price retailers. Family Dollar, for instance, posted a 15.5 percent gain in comparable store sales, while Caldor Corp. posted a solid 8.2 percent increase.
Kmart Corp., the nation's No. 2 retailer, lagged behind with a 3.5 percent gain.
While retailers' sales figures for September looked strong, those numbers might not translate into higher profits.
Among Maryland companies, Landover's Hechinger Co. was an obvious beneficiary of Hurricane Andrew. The home improvement company, which saw a jump in demand for lumber, posted an 8 percent gain in comparable store sales.
Joppa-based Merry-Go-Round turnedin another disappointing performance in comparable store sales as it fell short of projections for a second straight month.
"In September, they were expecting 5 percent and they did only 2 percent,"said Paul Bienstock, an analyst with Moran & Associates in Greenwich, Conn.