NEW YORK — Many retailers reported modest sales gains for January, compared with a sharp decline a year ago, as limited racks of holiday clearance items failed to entice shoppers to spend more freely. But the well-off seem to be back to splurging.
Fourth-quarter profit profits look brighter, however, as Macy's and Bon-Ton Stores are raising their outlooks because they didn't have to discount heavily and saw sales improve.
"Retailers are breathing another sign of relief," said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics, a research firm. "There are more winners than losers." But he emphasized that shoppers were still tight with their purse springs.
"The vast majority are still very focused on value and stretching every dollar. And that's not going to change for most of the year. I don't see a catalyst for spending until the back-to-school season."
Improved retail sales is important to the trucking industry since most of the retails goods sold in America are transported by commercial trucks.
According to Thomson Reuters' preliminary count, 13 merchants beat estimates, while fell short. The figures are based on sales at stores opened at least a year and are considered a key indicator of a retailer's health because it excludes the effects of new stores.
As merchants reported their sales figures Thursday, several stores including Limited Brands and Macy's announced solid sales increases. Even Abercrombie & Fitch, which had seen its teen customers defect to less expensive alternatives, offered a pleasant surprise — a robust sales increase instead of a sharp decline that Wall Street had expected.
Luxury chains such as Nordstrom Inc. and Saks Inc. also had strong sales gains that well surpassed Wall Street expecations, as the affluent appear to be encouraged by their rebounding stock portfolios.
But J.C. Penney Co., Stage Stores Inc. and teen retailer Wet Seal were among the stragglers that suffered declines. Target Corp. and Costco, excluding gasoline sales, had only modest gains.
January is the least important month of the year on retailers' calendar as stores use the period to clear out winter merchandise and bring in spring merchandise.
So analysts say they'll be studying sales patterns more closely in the coming months to discern shoppers' financial health.
January did offer clues about shoppers' focus on fat discounts. For the holiday season, stores ordered so conservatively that they ended December with relatively little extra inventory — and less than usual to mark down in January. As a result, some stores pushed up deliveries of spring items from jumpsuits to sandals, but bargains were all that most consumers wanted.
The latest report on confidence from The Conference Board shows that consumers' mood is steadily improving as they latch on to more signs of recovery in the economy. But until the job market improves dramatically, many shoppers are likely to remain frugal.
Raising concerns was the Labor Department's report, issued Thursday, that showed that the number of workers filing initial claims for jobless benefits rose unexpectedly last week, evidence that layoffs are continuing and jobs remain scarce.
The rise in claims is the fourth in the past five weeks. Most economists thought claims would resume a downward trend evident in the fall and early winter.
Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters estimate that employers added 5,000 jobs in January, following a loss of 85,000 in December. But government figures coming Friday are expected to show the unemployment rate ticked back up to 10.1 percent in January from December's 10 percent.
Against this economic backdrop, warehouse clubs such as Costco and other discounters are expected to keep attracting shoppers.
Costco said Thursday that its sales at stores open at least a year climbed 8 percent in January, propelled by higher gasoline prices and a softer dollar. The warehouse club operator's performance topped the 7.8 percent increase that analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expected.
But excluding the impact of higher gasoline prices and the weaker dollar, Costco's key sales figure rose 2 percent for the month with sales at U.S. stores open at least a year flat. Analysts had expected a 5.5 percent gain.
AP Economics Writer Christopher S. Rugaber in Washington contributed to this report.
Kevin Jones of The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at firstname.lastname@example.org.