NEW YORK -- Shoppers showed some spending muscle in July, once summer clearance sales and the hottest July in 50 years got them in the mood.
Solid sales reports from retailers Thursday took some sting out of weak June manufacturing data. And improving trends in jobless benefit applications give hope for slightly better job growth; the government reports on July employment today.
U.S. retailers reported better-than-expected July revenue in stores open at least a year, a hopeful sign at the start of back-to-school season, the No. 2 shopping season behind Christmas.
An initial compilation by the International Council of Shopping Centers of 20 retailers found revenue in stores open at least a year rose 4.6 percent in July, higher than the 3 percent to 3.5 percent expected. Economists watch the numbers because consumer spending makes up 70 percent of U.S. economic activity.
The figures are a key measure of retailers' health because they exclude newly opened and closed stores.
Summer clothing purchases drove the increase. Revenue at stores open at least a year rose 9.2 percent for clothing, the largest monthly increase since April, 2011, the council said.
Analysts said it was a positive sign Americans hit the mall. "I think the U.S. consumer surprised a lot of people," said Chris Donnelly, global industry managing director for retail at Accenture. "When you look at income, the savings rate, and unemployment, there's still a lot of cause for pessimism, but the U.S. consumer is amazingly resilient and has spurts of spending."
A pair of federal reports pointed to more weakness with U.S. manufacturing and only slight improvement in the slumping job market.
Companies placed fewer orders with U.S. factories in June than May. The Commerce Department said orders fell 0.5 percent, the third decline in four months. Also, orders that signal business investment plans dropped 1.7 percent, pulled down by less demand for computers and machinery.
Americans seeking weekly jobless benefits rose by 8,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 365,000, the Labor Department said. Seasonal distortions caused by fewer temporary layoffs in the auto industry this summer may have skewed the number higher, Labor officials said.
Still, economists said the trend in jobless benefits has improved. The four-week average fell for the sixth straight week to 365,500, the lowest since March 31.
Economists expect today's Labor Department report to say employers added 100,000 jobs and the jobless rate is stuck at 8.2 percent.