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Americans spend more in February

By Ben Rooney, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Many of the nation's top retail chains reported much stronger-than-expected February sales Thursday, furthering hopes that U.S. consumers are starting to loosen their purse strings.

Total sales jumped 4% in February, according to 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). The firm had forecast a 2.9% gain for the month.

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

February marked the sixth month in a row that overall same-store sales increased and was the strongest gain since November 2007, when those sales rose 6%.

However, analysts cautioned that the increase was partly a reflection of how bad sales were last year. In February 2009, same-store sales fell 4.7%.

"Clearly comparisons are very easy right now," said Scott Hoyt, a retail economist at Moody's Economy.com. "The level of sales is still very weak, but the trajectory is going in the right direction."

He said the improvement in sales was impressive because it came despite a rash of severe snow storms that crippled much of the Northeast during February, causing some retailers to close for a few days.

"The fact that we had better than expected results in the face of winter storms is encouraging and suggests that consumers are slowly and cautiously returning to spending," Hoyt said.

By the numbers

Sales were strong across the board, with 76% of retailers beating analysts' estimates.

Sales at the Gap rose 3% in February, versus an estimated 1.8% increase. The gain was driven by a 6% rise in sales at Banana Republic, which is the retailer's higher-end brand.

Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF), which has resisted discounting, reported a sales increase of 5% in the month. That compares with a forecasted decline of 6.9%.

The continued strength in sales at teen-focused retailers suggests that consumers are becoming more willing to spend on non-essential items, said Jharonne Martis, a retail industry analyst at Thomson Reuters.

Thomson Reuters' teen index, which tracks seven retailers in the sector, rose for the second month in a row, with only one company missing estimates.

"The teen index is a good proxy of discretionary spending," said Martis. "Consumers are reaching for their pocket books now."

Looking ahead, analysts expect March sales to be even stronger, due in part to sales associated with the Easter holiday.

-- An earlier version of this story misstated the sales increase at Abercrombie & Fitch. CNNMoney.com regrets the error.  To top of page

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