Two months ago I pitted a struggling Hot Topic (NASDAQ:HOTT) against a vibrant American Eagle Outfitters (NASDAQ:AEOS). With the former expanding despite a troubling dip in same-store sales while the latter was posting robust gains at the store level, it was easy to reason who would come out ahead as the back-to-school shopping season drove shoppers back in earnest last month.

Hot Topic's malaise continues as comps fell by 8.7% in August. Meanwhile, American Eagle had a huge month with same-store sales surging 23.9% higher.

Things couldn't be better for American Eagle these days. It initiated a quarterly cash dividend, and while it had originally told investors to hold out for $0.47 a share in earnings during the current quarter, the company is now confident that it will earn about a dime a share more than that sum.

It's a dramatic case of divergence like this that makes one wonder why some folks resort to counting parked cars at a shopping mall to diagnose the health of specialty retail. Unless you are actually buying into a mall operator such as Mills (NYSE:MLS) or Simon Property Group (NYSE:SPG), what's the point?

If a typical Hot Topic and American Eagle in the same mall are sporting such wide differences at the cash register, it's important to detach yourself from the health of the sector in general and single out the winners that are doing well while weeding out those faring poorly.

A good read on that front can usually come early during every month when companies announce the same-store sales sums from the month before. It wasn't just Hot Topic and American Eagle providing night-and-day results yesterday. Aeropostale (NYSE:ARO) saw its comps climb by 6.2%, while home decor specialist Bombay (NYSE:BBA) had a precipitous 19% dip in sales at the store level.

So, yes, those malls are big, cozy boxes, but as investors, you have to think outside the box.

Why do some specialty retailers get it while others don't? Is location inside a mall that important? Do I match? All this and more in the What to Wear? discussion board. Only on

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz enjoys the mall -- even the food court. He does not own shares in any companies mentioned in this story.