Record-breaking cold and clearance sales helped lift January sales above expectations for many of the nation's retailers, including Wal-Mart and Nordstrom, according to results released Thursday.
The January increase followed what was a respectable holiday season for many retailers.
"This is definitely a lot stronger than expected," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. "And it is across the board. This is a taste of the kind of performance we're likely to see in 2004."
He added that the frigid weather was more of a positive than a negative, helping to boost sales of winter apparel and other cold-weather items.
Niemira expected the International Council of Shopping Centers-UBS sales tally of about 80 retailers to be up 5.5 percent to 6 percent for the month, much better than the 4 percent to 4.5 percent gain he previously expected.
The tally is based on what the industry calls same-store sales, those from stores open at least a year. They are considered the best measure of a retailer's health.
Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, reported that January same-store sales were up 5.7 percent. The results exceeded the 4.1 percent estimate of analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call. Total sales were up 14.3 percent.
Limited Brands, the operator of Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works and other chains, posted a 23 percent increase in same-store sales, well exceeding the 19.9 percent gain estimated by Wall Street. Total sales were up 20 percent.
Nordstrom posted an 8.7 percent gain in same-store sales, exceeding the expected 5.6 percent gain. Total sales were up 13.5 percent.
Costco reported a same-store sales gain of 13 percent, beating the 8.6 percent estimate from Wall Street. Total sales were up 16 percent.
Meanwhile, teen retailer Pacific Sunwear of California recorded a 12.4 percent increase in same-store sales in January, beating Wall Street estimates of 7.4 percent. Total sales were up 24.5 percent.
On Tuesday, Federated Department Stores raised its fourth-quarter earnings outlook and announced a larger-than-expected 5.5 percent gain in same-store sales in January. Analysts had expected a modest increase of 0.3 percent. Total sales were up 5.1 percent.
By Anne D'Innocenzio