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Retailers post solid sales in February

Bigger tax refunds and strengthening economy credited

NEW YORK -- Despite a spike in oil prices and stormy weather in the Northeast and Midwest, consumers extended their shopping spree into February, handing retailers better-than-expected sales for the month.

New spring fashions and bigger tax refunds helped boost spending, and analysts pointed to a generally improving economy, particularly the job market, that has helped reinvigorate business.

Especially encouraging were reviving sales at mid- and lower-priced department stores, such as Kohl's Corp. and Sears, Roebuck and Co.

A broad range of companies beat Wall Street sales forecasts, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Nordstrom Inc., and Talbots Inc. Among the few disappointments were Limited Brands Inc. and May Department Stores Co., which is being acquired by Federated Department Stores Inc.

Consumers' tax refunds, which on average are larger than a year ago, are giving consumers an added incentive to spend.

And in another Labor Department report, the productivity of American workers rose at an annual rate of 2.1 percent in the final three months of last year, sharply higher than originally believed.

The Labor Department had initially reported a month ago that productivity -- the amount of output per hour of work -- had risen by just 0.8 percent in the October-December quarter.

The better-than-expected 2.1 percent revised estimate for productivity left this indicator for all of 2004 rising by 4 percent, the department said yesterday, capping the strongest three-year period for productivity growth in more than a half-century of record keeping.

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