NEW YORK — Shoppers shrugged off the snow and worries about the economy in February to buy full-price spring clothing and other items at the nation's malls, resulting in the strongest retail sales gain since November 2007, a month before the recession started.
The upbeat news also helped soothe fears among some economists that weak consumer spending might make the economic recovery short-lived.
A broad array of merchants, from luxury retailer Nordstrom to mid-level Macy's to discounter Target, reported sales increases on Thursday that beat Wall Street analysts' estimates.
The overall 3.7 percent gain in February, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers' index of 31 merchants, came in the face of a decline in consumer confidence, high joblessness and tight credit, and marked the third consecutive monthly sales increase for retailers, according to the ICSC.
"I am surprised by the broader strength" in the figures, said Mike Niemira, chief economist at the ICSC, who had expected a 2 percent increase. "Everyone is participating in this gain. And that's a good sign for the retail sector and for the economy overall."
Thursday's figures show that while consumers were willing to buy clothing, their focus was still on necessities.
When the Great Recession began, shoppers had flocked to cheaper stores from their higher-priced rivals, but Thursday's figures offer clear evidence that consumers, albeit still thrifty, are crawling back to their old higher-price haunts for certain items.
Still, while consumers are starting to spend a little more, the figures were boosted partly because sales in February 2009 were so awful.
Analysts still believe it won't be a smooth path to recovery, for retailers or the broader economy.
"The consumer spending recovery is going to be slow, long and gradual," said Ken Perkins, president of research firm RetailMetrics.
Dennis Jacobe, chief economist at Gallup, believes shoppers' thriftiness may have thawed a bit, as those who have jobs are buying a little more. But, he said, frugality has not gone away, based on Gallup's polls.
"We are in a new normal of spending," he said. He cited Gallup surveys taken from Feb. 1 to Feb. 3 in which 57 percent of consumers polled said they are spending less. One-third of those surveyed said curtailed spending will be their normal pattern.
Unemployment, 9.7 percent in January, is expected to increase to 9.8 percent in February. The Labor Department is to report job figures today.