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Updated from 10:54 a.m. EDT

August was a decidedly mixed bag for U.S. retailers. While discounters like

Wal-Mart

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and

Target

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cashed in on back-to-school, many other chains said sales weren't as robust as hoped.

Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, said same-store sales jumped 6.9% in the month, while overall net sales rose 13.7% to $19.53 billion. It was only two weeks ago that the company raised its expected same-store sales range to a gain of 4% to 6%. Wal-Mart said the back-to-school season is going better than planned.

Its main rival, Target, also beat its own monthly projections, with total sales rising 12.4% to $3.63 billion and same-store sales increasing 5.7%. The company cited stronger-than-expected sales at its Target Stores division, but maintained its current third-quarter earnings guidance.

Kohl's

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, also posted a strong month with total sales up 15.8% to $773.5 million and comparable stores sales increasing 3.2%, helped by back-to-school demand.

Rounding off the discounters was

Costco

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, which had 13% increase in total August sales to reach $3.41 billion and a 9% rise in same-store sales.

Doing less well was

Pier 1 Imports

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, which said same-store sales fell 6% last month and lowered revenue guidance for its August quarter to $428 million, slightly below the analyst consensus.

At

Gap

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, August comparable-store sales rose 4%, while total sales were up 5% to $1.22 billion. The results missed estimates, despite strong back-to-school sales of the company's new corduroy pants.

The month's results were spottier than usual, according to Morningstar analyst Heather Brilliant. She said companies that were best positioned to benefit from back-to-school shopping prospered in August, such as Wal-Mart and Target.

Both discount retailers have recently improved their merchandise offerings, which boosted sales, according to Ulysses Yannas, an analyst at Buckman, Buckman & Reid. "The quality is better, the styling is better and pricing is quite attractive," he said.

Still, Yannas said he generally takes August's sales results with a grain of salt. "Never take August alone. Take August and September," he said.

Some consumers buy back-to-school goods early, while some buy them late, Yannas noted. Combining the two months' results will give the best indication of late summer sales. Yannas believes that September's results will help make this year the best back-to-school season in several years. "I will be surprised if September is not a good month," he said.

Brilliant also noted a "truly astounding" surprise from private-label women's clothing retailer

Chico's FAS

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, which reported a 19.4% spike in same-store sales and a 42.5% jump in total sales to $56.3 million.

"Chico's has a strong in-between offering for in-between or transition seasons," the analyst said. Additionally, the company rolls over its products every month, she said, and thus customers tend to visit more frequently.

Another blowout month was had by

Pacific Sunwear

(PSUN)

, which reported a 15.6% same-store sales increase and said third-quarter earnings would come in a penny ahead of the existing analyst consensus of 40 cents a share. The company said fourth-quarter earnings should be 54 cents a share, matching the analyst consensus.

But a big decline was posted at

Abercrombie & Fitch

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, which had an 11% drop in same-store sales. Total sales increased 3% to $190.4 million for the month.

Brilliant noted that Abercrombie's same-store sales results continue a trend at the company, which has had only one month with an increase since April 2001 and none since March 2002.

Rob Wilson, senior analyst at Tiburon Research Group, believes the drastic differences in PacSun's and Abercrombie's August results reflect their different merchandising strategies. PacSun employs a branded approach, selling several different trendy brands at once with only a small amount of private label apparel, while Abercrombie sticks to its private label.

"PacSun is rockin'," said Wilson, who noted that after a management change in 1999, the company's sales took off. One of the company's most successful attributes is its 120 Demo concept stores, said Wilson, which cater to the hip-hop crowd. Demo has enjoyed around 20% positive monthly same-store sales since October, he said.

"

PacSun has been on such a roll that it's hard to argue," said Wilson.

Over in the women's specialty market,

Ann Taylor

(ANN)

said August same-store sales spiked 8.2% and the company affirmed existing third- and fourth-quarter earnings estimates.

But rival

Talbots

(TLB)

posted a same-store sales decline of 8.7%, slightly below its own expectations, and hurt by less clearance inventory. Total sales fell 2% to $87.8 million.

Department stores also had a month of varied results.

Sears

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said its August results were better than expected, mostly due to a boost in sales from its home appliances business. The company reported a 3.9% increase in same-store sales, while total sales increased 4.1% to $2.05 billion.

Federated

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reported a 0.8% decrease in same-store sales and said total sales fell 0.6% to $1.078 billion. The company said results beat its own expectations but noted that they would have been better had the blackout not occurred in the Northeast on Aug. 14. The company forecast September same-store sales to be flat to down 1%.

J.C. Penney

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said comparable department store sales jumped 6.5%, aided by back-to-school sales of young men's, girl's and boy's merchandise. Total sales were up 3.9% to $2.6 billion over last year. The company forecast September same-store sales to be "up low single digits."

May Department Stores

(MAY)

, which owns the Lord & Taylor and Filene's retail chains, said August store-for-store sales declined 3.2% while total sales dropped 1.1% to $964.3 million.

Buckman, Buckman & Reid's Yannas noted that department stores are beginning to come out of the same-store sales drought they've been in for the past several years. One notable example, he said, is Sears, which had been doing poorly for years, but had positive same-store sales this month.

Department stores are now "monitoring inventories better and using new software programs to identify items that aren't moving so they can take smaller discount earlier," said Yannas.

Looking ahead, fall will be an especially important season this year, Morningstar's Brilliant believes. "People are wondering what's going on with retail shoppers and the industry," she said. But "it's proving hard to determine the direction with August being so mixed."