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Many retailers see solid sales in Jan.

/ Source: The Associated Press

Consumers lured by clearance sales and a fresh assortment of spring apparel gave many of the nation’s retailers solid January sales despite late-month snowstorms in the Midwest and Northeast.

As merchants released their results Thursday, a diverse group of retailers had sales that beat Wall Street expectations, including clothing stores Abercrombie & Fitch and Talbots Inc., department store chain J.C. Penney Co. Inc. and discounter Target Corp. Luxury stores such as Neiman Marcus Group Inc. again reported sales that surpassed Wall Street estimates.

There were some disappointments, including Gap Inc. and May Department Stores Co., which suffered sharp sales declines.

But overall, January was a good month.

“Consumers may be feeling a little bit better about their job prospects,” said Ken Perkins, an analyst at RetailMetrics LLC, a research firm in Swampscott, Mass.

The International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS preliminary sales tally of 70 retailers rose 3.7 percent in January, higher than the 2.5 percent forecast. The tally is based on same-store sales, which are sales at stores opened at least a year. They are considered the best indicator of a retailer’s health.

Analysts were worried about January’s results because of the severe weather at the end of the month, but as Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers, said, “stores are holding up.” January is the final and least important month in the retail sales calendar, but nonetheless is an indicator of consumer spending.

The month did provide some encouraging trends — stores including Penney, Gap and Talbots also reported strong sales of regular-priced spring merchandise, boosted in part by consumers redeeming gift cards. Gift card sales are only recorded when they are redeemed.

Perkins predicted fourth-quarter earnings will be strong although nervous retailers resorted to markdowns as shoppers procrastinated during December.

“The heavy discounting that took place doesn’t seem to have taken a big bite out of the bottom line as one might have expected,” he said.

In another report, the Labor Department said the number of newly laid off workers filing claims for unemployment benefits totaled a seasonally adjusted 316,000 last week, a decline of 9,000 from the previous week, boosting new claims to the lowest level since early December.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, reported a 2.5 percent increase in same-store sales, compared to a 2.6 percent estimate from analysts polled by Thomson First Call.

The discounter’s original forecast was for a 2 percent to 4 percent gain, but on Monday Wal-Mart estimated that same-store sales would be up 2.5 percent, hurt by the snowy weather in the Northeast and Midwest.

Wal-Mart and other retailers said January business was also affected by the timing of the Super Bowl, which is being held Feb. 6 after being played in January of last year. That means sales of party items and snack foods will fall in February this year.

Rival Target had a 9.4 percent gain in same-store sales, below the 6.6 percent analyst estimate. Total sales rose 13.6 percent.

BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc. posted a 1.9 percent gain, well below the 6.4 percent estimate. Total sales rose 4.9 percent. BJ’s said same-store sales rose 6 percent for the first three weeks of the month, but fell 9 percent in the fourth week; more than half the chain was affected by snowstorms.

Among department stores, Penney’s department store sales rose 3.3 percent, much better than the 2.7 percent decline Wall Street expected. Total sales rose 5.4 percent. Penney said its performance was helped by strong sales of holiday clearance merchandise and spring apparel.

Sears, Roebuck and Co. reported a 0.8 percent gain in its domestic business, better than the 2.6 percent decline that Wall Street expected. Total sales rose 1.7 percent.

But May suffered a 7 percent drop, much worse than the 2.8 percent Wall Street expected. Total sales rose 12.9 percent.

Federated Department Stores Inc. had a 0.4 percent same-store sales decline, worse than the 0.2 percent estimate. Total sales fell 0.5 percent.

Upscale stores, whose customers continue to benefit from an improving economy, once again had strong gains.

Neiman Marcus reported a 12.2 percent gain in same-store sales, above the 7.9 percent estimate. Total sales rose 10.1 percent.

Nordstrom had a 8.8 percent gain in same-store sales, well above the 4.5 percent estimate. Total sales rose 8.9 percent.

Among apparel retailers, Limited Brands Inc.’s same-store sales rose 9 percent, above the 6.5 percent estimate. Total sales rose 11 percent.

Talbots had a 13.4 percent increase in same-store sales, well past the 6.5 percent forecast. Total sales increased 22 percent.

“January is historically a clearance month and our significantly better-than-expected comparable store sales results ... were driven primarily by the strength of our markdown selling,” said Arnold B. Zetcher, chairman, president and chief executive, in a statement. He also reported a healthy increase in regular-price selling of early spring merchandise.

Abercrombie & Fitch enjoyed a 17 percent same-store sales increase, below the 1.4 percent increase. Total sales rose 30 percent.