U.S. retailers say business picked up later in February

By Phil WahbaReuters

Sales for many U.S. retailers rose in February, as shoppers ventured out later in the month after a dismal start when ice, cold and snow kept many of them at home.

Costco Wholesale Corp on Thursday said U.S. sales at stores open at least a year rose 3 percent, while L Brands Inc reported a better-than-expected 2 percent rise, lifted by gains at its Victoria's Secret lingerie chain.

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The unusually cold and snowy weather that slammed retailers in January continued into February, including an ice storm that idled much of the Southeast for days.

But sales trends improved as the weather got better and many U.S. consumers got tax refunds, said John Cato, chief executive of discount clothing chain Cato Corp.

Last week, the chief executives of department store chain Macy's Inc and jeweler Zale Corp also reported much brisker business after Valentine's Day.

"Bring on the spring and you'll see a much improved consumer spending pace, said Michael Niemira, chief economist of the International Council of Shopping Centers.

He re-iterated his expectation for consumer spending to keep improving this year as the job market and economy gain strength.

A later Easter this year will dent March sales but help overall sales for the season as weather is less likely to disrupt shopping, Niemira said. Easter is on April 20 this year.

A group of major retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters, excluding drugstore chains, is expected to report a 1.9 percent rise in same-store sales for February, down from 4.8 percent a year earlier.

Specialty apparel retailers Gap Inc and American Apparel Inc will report monthly sales Thursday afternoon.

Shoppers kept gravitating to deals last month.

Teen apparel Zumiez Inc said its same-store sales rose 2 percent as it held sales to clear out holiday season merchandise. Rival chain Buckle Inc said its sales declined more than expected.

Off-price retailer Stein Mart Inc said cold weather in Northeastern and Midwestern states contributed to a decline of 2.1 percent last month, when analysts were expecting a 2.5 percent rise.

Walgreen Co said fewer shoppers came into its stores, but it sold more general merchandise, lifting its comparable sales 4.5 percent. Rite Aid Corp said a milder flu season had hit sales, but its same-store sales rose 1.5 percent.

The Children's Place Retail Stores Inc , which does not report monthly sales, said it was "taking a cautious stance" for its 2014 forecasts given the weather last month and the "heightened promotional environment." Its shares were down 10.4 percent.

Costco also reported its full quarter results, that showed unusually deep discounting in the holiday shopping season hurt margins, and its shares fell 3.2 percent.

The S&P 500 Retail Index was down 0.7 percent on Thursday morning, while the broader S&P 500 rose 0.3 percent.

(Reporting by Phil Wahba in New York)