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February Sales Lead Retail Index to All-time High

Department and specialty stores posted healthy gains, in line with retail sales in the overall economy, a U.S. Commerce Department report showed.

Better retail sales in February helped stoke investor optimism Tuesday, pushing the Dow Jones Industrial Average over 13,000, while the S&P Retail Index topped 600.

Sales at apparel and accessories stores rose a seasonally adjusted 1.8 percent to $19.7 billion in February compared with January, while sales at department stores rose 1.5 percent to $15.4 billion. General merchandise stores, a category that includes department stores and discounters, posted a 0.1 percent decline to $53.6 billion.

Overall retail sales increased 1.1 percent to $407.8 billion, slightly ahead of the 1 percent gain economists expected.

“Clothing and department stores came on like gangbusters in February since the spring fashion line was in sync with the weather conditions and many outlets were offering discounts to move their excess winter apparel inventory,” said Chris G. Christopher Jr., senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight. “Retailers had a good month in February as unseasonably warm weather, increased consumer confidence, better job prospects and a strong stock market helped Americans open their wallets despite feeling the pinch at the pump. Spending was broad-based, with very few exceptions.”

IHS is forecasting that consumer spending adjusted for inflation will increase 2 percent for the first quarter of the year.

Kevin Regan, senior managing director of FTI Consulting, said the apparel area is “popping.”

“The story this month has to be the teen sector because of The Buckle and Zumiez,” Regan said, noting it is hard to get a broad read because fewer retailers are reporting monthly comparable-store sales. “The good news is the Gap reported positive comps, which is unusual since they have struggled in the past year, even though some divisions may have been positive.”

Regan said spring merchandise and unseasonably warm weather has helped boost retail revenues.

“Nordstrom and Saks are doing very well,” he said. “Macy’s continues to be up there in terms of performance, but Bon-Ton is muddling along and Kohl’s had a disappointing dip in how they performed. I don’t know if that simply reinforces the fact that the people who can afford to shop are shopping and those that can’t are stretching their pennies…and doing what they can as they continue to slowly experience improvements in the economy.”

The S&P Retail Index rose 0.8 percent, or 4.58 points, to 602.72, marking the first time the measure of the retail sector has topped 600. The Dow Jones Industrial Average increased 1.7 percent, or 217.97, to 13,177.68.

The fashion gainers included Coldwater Creek Inc., which rose 13.5 percent to $1.26; Pacific Sunwear of California Inc., 12.6 percent to $2.51, and American Apparel Inc., 12 percent to $1.02. After the market closed, Pacific Sunwear reported fourth-quarter net losses of $38.1 million, but still topped analyst estimates. And American Apparel Inc. secured a new credit facility.

Also gaining ground for the day were Bon-Ton Stores Inc., up 6.8 percent to $8.59; Nordstrom Inc., 2.3 percent to $54.90; Gap Inc., 1.4 percent to $25.45; Kohl’s Corp., 1.3 percent to $51.25; Saks Inc., 0.9 percent to $11.52; The Buckle Inc., 0.6 percent to $49.43, and Macy’s Inc., 0.5 percent to $39.57.