NEW YORK -- Snow and sleet last month left few consumers in a mood to shop. But with spring finally settling in, retailers are likely to see their business thaw, and maybe even blossom.
Hardly anyone wanted to buy lightweight or pastel-colored clothes. And so the nation's retailers struggled with mixed sales -- heavyweights Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Limited Brands had results that fell short of expectations when merchants released their sales figures yesterday.
Still, analysts said, it wasn't all that bad. Teenagers, perhaps the hardiest of shoppers, gave youth-oriented apparel sellers including Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and Bebe Stores Inc. a solid month. And the analysts say consumers are still upbeat about spending, despite oil prices in the $50-per-barrel range and the threat of rising interest rates.
Even some upscale retailers like Neiman Marcus Group Inc., which have benefited in recent months from the improving economy, were hurt by the weather. Other March underperformers included moderately priced J.C. Penney Co., whose sales soundly missed estimates, and discount department store operator Kohl's Corp., which had an unexpected drop in business.
Discounter Target Corp. was among the winners, easily beating forecasts.
The International Council of Shopping Centers said its final March sales tally of 71 retailers rose 4.1 percent, roughly in the middle of a projected gain of 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent. In February, the tally rose 4.7 percent. The tally is based on same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least one year.
In another encouraging sign for consumer spending, a government report said the number of Americans applying for jobless benefits fell by 19,000 last week, the biggest decline in two months. The decline pushed the level of unemployment benefits down to 334,000, after claims had unexpectedly jumped by 23,000 the previous week, the Labor Department said.