NEW YORK — Americans are finally spending a little more, but they're playing hard to get.
A tally of sales at top stores managed a gain in September for the first time in more than a year. It was a pleasant surprise for retailers, but analysts say shoppers still aren't coming in the door unless they see deep discounts.
The increase in the sales figure from the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs on Thursday was small — just 0.1 percent — yet significant because many analysts expected sales to keep falling, as they had starting in August 2008.
A late Labor Day and delayed school openings helped because Americans bought some items in September that they otherwise might have bought in August.
And the comparisons with a year ago look good partly because September 2008 was when the financial meltdown struck and sales plummeted.
At stores, they're keeping an eye out for sale signs.
"The tone is better, and I am encouraged, but it is still a very difficult environment where retailers have to promote in order to get shoppers to buy," said New York retail consultant Walter Loeb.
In the previous five Septembers before last year, sales rose an average of 2.6 percent compared with the year before.
For the holidays, the National Retail Federation predicts Americans will spend $437.6 billion, about even with the $433.7 billion they spent in 2005.