NEW YORK — Americans didn't stop splurging after the holidays.
They braved snowstorms and shopped in force in January, handing retailers including Costco, Victoria's Secret and Macy's surprisingly strong sales.
"It's one more piece of the economic puzzle that's falling in place," said Michael P. Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Consumer spending has been improving for more than a year, and this holiday season was the strongest for stores since 2006, before the Great Recession, according to the council. Sales figures for January showed shoppers weren't spent out after Christmas.
The council's index of 32 stores showed a robust 4.8 percent increase for the month, well above the expected 1.5 to 2 percent. The figures cover Jan. 2 through Saturday for stores that have been open at least a year.
Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, so how shoppers behave is an important measure of economic health. The next question is whether they will pay full price for spring items, which are starting to show up in stores.
Rising gas prices and other household costs could squeeze shoppers. The next few months could be a "long spring thaw," said John Morris, an analysts for BMO Capital Markets.
Niemira said he believes a better job market could offset the higher prices. The next read on employment comes today, when the Labor Department reports on job gains or losses for January. The unemployment rate is 9.4 percent.
For retailers, January is the least important month of the year because they use it to clear out winter goods and make room for spring merchandise. Still, the strength brightened profit outlooks from Limited Brands, J.C. Penney and teen retailer Wet Seal.
Costco reported a 9 percent gain in revenue at stores opened at least a year, and Limited Brands had a stellar 24 percent increase. Business at Limited was helped by a twice-a-year sale at Victoria's Secret that moved to January from December, but the results continued a long streak of big gains.
Among department stores, Macy's posted a better-than-expected 2.6 percent gain.
Business at Target came in below expectations, particularly in the South and Northeast, both hit hard by winter storms. It was the chain's second consecutive disappointing month.