Analysts were quick to credit hot weather and sales for the July results, rather than any uptick in the economy.
"The weather drew people out, and they were enticed by the discounts, but I would not put too much stock in what happens in July," said Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst at research firm NBG Productions. "Consumers are only responding to deep discounts or heavily promoted items."
Only a handful of chains representing roughly 13 percent of the U.S. retail industry report monthly sales. Major chains that don't report include Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. The figures are based on stores open at least a year and are a key measure of retailers' health because they exclude newly opened and closed stores. Economists watch the numbers because consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.
Discount stores were among the best performers. TJX Cos., which operates TJMaxx and Home Goods stores, and Ross Stores Inc. both reported better-than expected sales for the month and raised their earnings projections for the second quarter.
Gap Inc. was a surprise outperformer. Revenue in stores open at least a year rose 10 percent, handily beating expectations for a 3.8 percent gain. The figure rose 13 percent at Gap stores, 12 percent at Old Navy and 8 percent at Banana Republic.
Target also performed well, with revenue in stores open at least a year up 3.1 percent in July, as more shoppers visited its stores. Analysts had expected the measure to rise 2.7 percent.
And Limited Brands Inc., which runs Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works, said the revenue figure rose 12 percent in July, double what analysts expected. The company also boosted its second-quarter earnings outlook and declared a special dividend on Thursday.
Teen clothing sellers were mixed. Abercrombie & Fitch late Wednesday said revenue at stores open at least a year fell 10 percent in the second quarter. It also slashed its outlook for future earnings, including cutting second-quarter estimates to between 15 and 18 cents, about half of what analysts had expected.