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by Anne D'Innocenzio

New York — Amid the pile of downbeat sales reports for July from retailers, there was a sliver of hope: Second-quarter profits may not be as bad as expected when merchants such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Macy’s Inc. and J.C. Penney Co. post their results starting this week.

Several companies, from Gap Inc. and Penney to teen retailer Hot Topic Inc., raised their outlooks last week — with help from strict inventory controls and slashing expenses — even as they reported sales declines in July at established stores.

Still, retailers overall are expected to report a fifth consecutive drop in quarterly earnings, according to Ken Perkins, president of research company RetailMetrics LLC. Worries abound about how merchants will stem the erosion of their profits as they confront what could be a deeper spending funk in the critical months ahead.

Among the hardest hit have been clothing stores, which have seen a sales slump worsen in recent months as shoppers buy only what they need. Analysts will be looking for any clues from the earnings reports on when the apparel sector will see a recovery.

The challenge becomes, “how do we drive traffic in a really slow environment?” says Perkins. He expects that his estimate for a 5.7 percent decline in second-quarter profits from a year ago may now be a bit too harsh amid the better outlook many merchants have given. Still, with the economic uncertainty and the cost pressures retailers are facing, he said it’s hard to “nail down” a figure.

Nevertheless, the back-to-school season “doesn’t look promising,” said Michael Appel, a managing director of Quest Turnaround Advisors.

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