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Summer heat may have you focused on vacations, but attention will soon shift to back-to-school and potential retail winners and losers.

Since the back-to-school shopping season trails only the December and Easter holiday seasons for consumer spending, retailers have a strong history of rewarding investors through September.

Specifically, five retailers have posted Q3 gains in at least 7 of the past 10 years, according to the Seasonal Investor database. And, each has catalysts to help them trade higher.

Source: Seasonal Investor

(click to enlarge)

American Eagle Outfitters (NYSE:AEO) is trading 17% below its peak last September and analysts expect the company to earn $1.65 per share next year. This gives shares a forward PE multiple of just 11.5x, solidly below the 17 multiple investors are currently paying for trailing twelve month earnings. The debt-free company has $2.58 per share in cash and remains a favorite among high school and college-age students. American Eagle plans to open 50-55 new stores in the United States and abroad this year and will cull 20-30 American Eagle brand and 15-20 Aerie brand stores. The company blamed colder than expected weather for a 4% sales slump last quarter. However, sales at its Aerie brand stores improved 4% while Internet sales improved 24%. Additionally, the company is set up well for a rebound. Lower product costs helped gross margin increase 30 basis points year-over-year last quarter, despite the slowing sales. As summer weather helps related inventory turns and we move to full-price sales of back-to-school inventory, stronger sales should provide additional margin leverage against fixed costs.

Quarterly earnings transcript

Finish Line (NASDAQ:FINL) is trading more than 10% lower than its peak last September and analysts estimate the company will earn $1.80 per share next year. This gives shares a forward PE multiple of 12.2x, nicely below the 17.3x multiple investors are currently paying for trailing twelve month earnings. Like American Eagle, Finish Line is debt free and has a strong cash balance of $3.99 per share. The company's bottom line results have beat analyst estimates in three of the past four quarters. Last quarter, same-store sales improved 2.4% from a year ago. Importantly, online traffic to the company's website grew 35%. Those extra visits helped online sales grow 11% to 12.4% of total company sales. Future growth opportunity exists through its Macy's (NYSE:M) store-in-store partnership. The company opened 60 of those Macy's stores during the quarter and the deal allows Finish Line, whose existing customers are predominately male, to broaden its reach with women.

Quarterly earnings transcript

Guess Inc. (NYSE:GES)

After bottoming last November, Guess has rallied nearly 50% and is just shy of its September 2012 prior peak. Analysts have boosted their earnings per share outlook for next year to $2.13 from $2.08, 90 days ago, giving shares a forward PE multiple of 14.8x -- a bit shy of the 16.8x investors are paying for trailing twelve month earnings. Unlike American Eagle and Finish Line, the company isn't debt free. But, the balance sheet is solid with $3.69 in cash per share and a current ratio of 3.09. Guess continues to face European economic headwinds. However, comparisons continue to ease suggesting an eventual rebound could offer support. Additionally, the company continues to expand beyond Southern Europe into new European markets and is well positioned in Asia and in Latin America. During last quarter, sales in Mexico improved 30% year-over-year and the company plans to expand into Brazil this year. Guess has also seen online sales grow double digits in each of the past six quarters.

Quarterly earnings transcript

L Brands, Inc (LTD)

Since March, L Brands shares have climbed roughly 15%. The company, which owns the Victoria Secret, Bath and Body Works and PINK brands, has beat analyst expectations in each of the past four quarters and the Street is currently looking for $3.51 per share next year. This gives shares a forward multiple of 14.2x, nicely below the 19x multiple they're currently paying for trailing twelve month earnings. Last quarter, earnings per share increased 17% to a record $0.48 as sales grew 5% and comparable-store sales improved 3%. The company has reduced fixed costs, which should provide additional leverage once the back-to-school season heats up. This earnings strength should help the company return more money to shareholders. Last quarter, L Brands bought back 1.2 million shares, leaving $184 million on its current buyback authorization. With plans to open 50 new stores this year, future growth should come from the company's PINK brand.

Quarterly earnings transcript

Urban Outfitters (NASDAQ:URBN)

Shares of Urban Outfitters have been range bound so far this year, trading between $38 and $44. Analysts expect the company will generate earnings of $2.23 next year, giving it a forward PE ratio of 18.6x, below the 24.4x investors are paying for trailing twelve month earnings. Like American Eagle and Finish Line, Urban is debt free with $3.32 per share in cash. In the first quarter, sales were up 14% as comparable sales increased 9%. The company, which operates the Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Free People brands, also benefited from opening seven new stores in the quarter and saw a 16% lift in wholesale revenue. The company's Free People brand grew comp sales 44% and saw its brand generate 16% wholesale growth. Importantly, gross profit margin increased 1.25% year-over year to 36.8% in the quarter thanks to fewer markdowns. Operating margins did even better, growing 1.96% to 11.3%. Future growth should come from the planned opening of 35-40 new stores this year, including new stores in Europe. Given the company's focus on the key back-to-school demographic, a pick up this quarter could help move shares higher.

Quarterly earnings transcript

Final Take

Retail is one of the most seasonal baskets and share prices typically trade in anticipation of the key spending periods. In addition to leveraging retail stores, each of these apparel retailers is keenly focused on growing their online presence -- offering margin tailwinds as the percentage of total sales made online increases.

Given the seasonal back drop and relatively reasonable valuations, now may be a good time to consider adding these retailers to your portfolio.

Source: The 5 Retail Stocks You Should Own For Back To School