New York Record-breaking cold and clearance sales helped lift January sales above expectations for many retailers, including merchants who lagged behind their competitors in recent months, according to results released Thursday.
Wal-Mart, Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Abercrombie & Fitch were among companies with better-than-expected results. There were a few disappointments, including Talbots, which blamed sharper-than-expected sales declines on its lack of winter inventory.
The January increase followed what was a respectable holiday season for many retailers, suggesting to analysts that a previously uneven recovery in consumer spending seems to be gaining more traction.
"This is definitely a lot stronger than expected," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. "And it is across the board. This is a taste of the kind of performance we're likely to see in 2004."
He added that the frigid weather was more of a positive than a negative, helping to boost sales of winter apparel and other cold-weather items.
January -- the last and least important month in the retail-sales calendar -- was not expected to be strong, given that stores did not have mounds of inventory to clear. But some companies, including Gap, reported they did well with regular-priced merchandise, including spring apparel.
Niemira said the International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS preliminary sales tally of about 71 retailers was up 5.8 percent for the month, much better than the 4 percent to 4.5 percent gain he expected.