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Retail rebound

NEW YORK — Sometimes, the devil is in the deals.

Americans shopped the winter clearance racks in January, resulting in strong sales during the month for retailers. But spending is expected to slow as the deals dry up, and as Americans begin to digest rising gas prices and a 2 percent payroll tax hike that started in January.

Overall, 20 retailers — representing about 13 percent of the $2.4 trillion U.S. retail industry — reported Thursday that revenue at stores opened at least a year — an indicator of a store's health — rose an average of 5.1 percent, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That's above the trade group's 3 percent estimate and also marks the highest reading since last August, when the figure was up 6 percent.

Retailers had already discounted heavily during the holiday season to get people to buy. January, which typically is the time when stores have clearance sales on winter merchandise to make room for spring items, caused them to slash prices even more.

But once the clearance goods disappeared last month, so did shoppers. Analysts say the absence of big discounts — coupled with the higher payroll tax and gas prices that have risen for the past 20 days — caused sales to taper off in the last week or so of the month.

Overall, January was good for most retailers.

Macy's, which runs Bloomingdale's and Macy's stores, said revenue rose 11.7 percent in January, nearly doubling the 6.4 percent increase analysts polled by Thomson Reuters had expected. And the retailer raised its fourth-quarter adjusted earnings forecast due to its strong performance in January.

Gap Inc., the owner of the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic chains, which has struggled to regain its relevance, said its January revenue rose 8 percent on strength in its North American stores. Wall Street expected a 4 percent rise.

Meanwhile, Target Corp., the discounter that sells everything from clothes to home goods to groceries, reported a solid 3.1 percent increase in revenue, helped by strong sales of clearance items. That beat the 1.7 percent estimate from Wall Street.

Despite the strong showing, Gregg Steinhafel, Target's CEO, said its customers "continue to shop with discipline in the face of a slow economic recovery and new pressures, including recent payroll tax increases."

As a result, Steinhafel said Target remains "focused on providing unbeatable value combined with a superior guest experience in both our stores and digital channels."

Going forward, analysts say that retailers may have a tough time luring in shoppers.

"Consumers were shopping and hunting for those clearance items," said Michael Niemira, chief economist at the ICSC, the trade group. "Despite the strong reading, January may be one of the highest points of the year."

More economic news

Here is a summary of other economic reports released Thursday:

• The Labor Department said weekly applications for unemployment benefits fell 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 366,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped to 350,500, the lowest in nearly five years.

• U.S. worker productivity — the amount of output per hour of work — shrank in the final three months of 2012 although the decline was caused by temporary factors. Productivity contracted at an annual rate of 2 percent in the quarter, the biggest drop since the first quarter of 2011, the Labor Department reported. Productivity had risen at a 3.2 percent rate in the July-September quarter.

• Americans stepped up borrowing in December to buy cars and attend school, but they cut back sharply on credit card use. Consumer borrowing rose $14.6 billion in December from November to a total of $2.78 trillion, the Federal Reserve said, the highest level on record. Borrowing in the category that measures those loans increased $18.2 billion, the biggest monthly gain since November 2001. But credit card debt fell $3.6 billion. Total credit card debt has fallen roughly 17 percent since the July 2008.

Retail rebound 02/07/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 7, 2013 10:05pm]
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