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America's shopping again

By Parija Kavilanz, senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Several leading retail chains reported January same-store sales numbers Thursday that beat expectations, bolstering talk of a budding rebound at the nation's malls and discounters.

Sales tracker Thomson Reuters, which looks at monthly same-store sales for 30 chains such as Costco, Target (TGT, Fortune 500), Gap and J.C. Penney (JCP, Fortune 500), said overall January sales -- typically fueled by post-holiday gift card redemptions and clearance events -- increased 3.3%. That was a far better performance than the 5.7% decline a year earlier.

The firm expected a monthly gain of 2.5%.

Same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, are a key measure of a retailer's performance.

The increase occurred despite complaints by some merchants that bad weather kept many shoppers away.

"This is a positive sign. Five straight months means that this is not an accident, but that we have a trend forming here ," said Janet Hoffman, retail expert with consultant firm Accenture.

The trend might fuel optimism that consumer spending, which slumped severely through the latest recession, is starting to rebound. But retail analysts caution that the monthly sales numbers have been looking much better simply because of easier comparisons from a year earlier.

But while Hoffman is aware of the comparisons, "the bottom line is that we are starting to get some momentum behind these numbers," she said.

Among the winners last month were discounter Costco (COST, Fortune 500), which posted a 8% same-store sales gain, helped by higher gasoline prices, and beat forecasts for a 7.8% increase.

Department store chain Macy's (M, Fortune 500), logged a much better-than-expected 3.4% gain in its same-store sales, trouncing expectations for a flat year-over-year performance in the month.

As a result, the retailer raised its fourth-quarter and full-year profit guidance. Macy's now expects to log a fourth-quarter profit of $1.35 to $1.37 a share compared to its previous guidance of $1.14 to $1.18 a share.

"Retailers are doing a fantastic job in bringing down prices, managing their inventory and getting exciting new stuff to consumers," said Hoffman. "It seems to be working so far."

Limited Brands, parent of the Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works chains, posted a strong 6% same-store sales increase, beating analysts' expectations for a 0.5% gain in the month.

Clothing seller Gap Inc. posted a 5% same-store sales increase, compared to a 23% drop in sales at the same time last year, and upped its fourth-quarter profit forecast

In the luxury space, department store chain Nordstrom enjoyed a 14% same-store sales increase, versus expectations for a 10% gain.

However, there were a few laggards last month. Specialty stores that cater to teen shoppers had a particularly disappointing month.

Sales at Hot Topic tumbled fell 13.1%, with Wet Seal posting a 3.7% drop. To top of page

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