U.S. retailers' sales at stores open at least a year rose about 6% in August as shoppers scooped up fall fashions and back-to-school items such as knapsacks and notebooks, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi reported Wednesday.

The estimate for same-store sales indicates a cooling trend, down from July's 6.9% increase and June's 7.4% gain. But this August's sales gains were far ahead of August 1998, when they rose 4.4%.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other discount chains that aggressively marketed back-to-school programs led the sales increases.

"It's pretty incredible how much retailers ramped up back-to-school promotions," said analyst Alan Mak of Argus Research Corp. "Back-to-school is a pretty sizable portion of a retailer's bottom line, so they really have to attack it."

The outlook may not be as cheerful as the August numbers suggest. Rising gasoline prices and other signs of inflation may curb spending, especially at stores that cater to lower-income consumers, said Michael Niemira, a Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi analyst.

"Early in the year it seemed that the whole industry was partaking in a great time," he said. "That started to change a little bit a few months ago. Now some retailers will do well, but at the expense of others."

Same-store sales are a key indicator of a retailer's business because they exclude sales from new and closed stores. The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi index includes about 80 chains. Many retailers will report their sales results today.

Wal-Mart's sales are expected to rise as much as 9%.Sales at Kmart Corp., the No. 2 U.S. discount chain, will increase about 3.5%, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi estimates.

Dayton Hudson Corp., which gets about two-thirds of its sales from the Target discount chain, is expected to report an increase of 4% to 6%. Sales rose just 1% at its Mervyn's mid-price stores, though, and were relatively unchanged at its department stores division, which includes the Dayton's, Hudson's and Marshall Field's chains.

Meanwhile, Federated Department Stores Inc., which owns Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and other department stores, is expected to report a 3% gain.

Sales at May Department Stores Co., the operator of Filene's, Strawbridge's, and Lord & Taylor, rose about 3.5%, analysts said.

"Department stores generate a lot of cash flow," said Jeff Stinson, an analyst at Midwest Research. "For Dayton Hudson, that's reinvested into Target. For other department store companies, that's reinvested back into their department stores."

Sears and J.C. Penney Co., the two largest department store chains, will not have the sales gains enjoyed by their competitors. Both companies have lost customers to discount chains, stylish specialty stores, and department stores that carry designer brands.

Same-store sales will be relatively unchanged at Sears and will decline 1% to 2% at J.C. Penney, analysts said.

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