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

A shopper passes by mostly empty refrigerator of milk at a grocery store in Lilburn, Georgia, February 12, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell
A shopper passes by mostly empty refrigerator of milk at a grocery store in Lilburn, Georgia, February 12, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell

By Phil Wahba

(Reuters) - Sales at many major 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.

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

Gap Inc reported a 7 percent decline in comparable sales, and said 450 of its stores were closed at some point or other in February because of the weather. Analysts expected a 0.9 percent increase. Gap's shares fell 3 percent after hours.

Excluding drugstores, the Thomson Reuters Same Store Sales Index, which tracks a group of major retailers, registered a 0.3 percent increase for February, missing analyst projections for a 1.9 percent rise.

The S&P 500 Retail Index closed down 0.5 percent on Thursday, while the broader S&P 500 <.SPX> rose 0.2 percent.

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 reiterated 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

(Reporting by Phil Wahba in New York; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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