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by James B. Stewart

Despite reports to the contrary, the American consumer is evidently alive and well—and shopping for back-to-school clothing.

Every recession brings predictions that consumers will close their wallets and cut up their credit cards, and no doubt many have. August retail sales rose 3.5% over the year-ago period, solidly above expectations, according to research firm Retail Metrics’ index of same-store sales, which culls data from 30 U.S. retailers.

With fall in the air, this is the time of year I like to look for bargains among stocks in the retail sector, especially now, with low expectations heading into the critical holiday-shopping period. Because I’m not much of a mall-goer I turned to my niece Maggie, who is just out of college and was shopping last week in Indianapolis.

Maggie reports that stores were crowded, with lines at the checkout counters at Gap and American Eagle Outfitters, two of her preferred stores. The must-have fashion for young women appears to be “jeggings,” jeans so tight they qualify as leggings. Super-tight jeans also are the look for young men, she reports. Cardigan sweaters, oversized jewelry and racer-back shirts, which expose the shoulders and are cut low in the back, complete the look.

Although it has been a long time since anyone thought of Gap as trendy, the chain has been pushing tight jeans and seems to have this look in hand. Its share price could certainly use a boost. At $17.65 as of Friday’s close, it’s down over 16% year-to-date and 33% off its high of $26.21 in April.

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