Strong February sales at stores up and down the price spectrum, from J.C. Penney to Saks, show that a broad range of shoppers are feeling more comfortable about the economy.
The question is whether rising gasoline, food and clothing prices will reverse the trend this spring.
Retailers on Thursday reported surprisingly strong revenue gains for February. The International Council of Shopping Centers’ index of 28 retailers rose 4.2 percent compared with the same month last year. That was well above the trade group’s projections for a 2.5 percent to 3 percent increase.
The gain follows a 4.7 percent increase in January and the best holiday season since 2006. The figures are based on revenue at stores open at least a year, a key indicator of a retailer’s health because it excludes the effects of stores that open or close during the year.
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February started slowly for merchants because snowstorms kept some shoppers home. As the month went on, weather improved, perking up sales of spring clothing.
Meanwhile, the number of people filing for unemployment benefits sank last week to its lowest point in nearly three years.
All of this combined suggests that the economy may be about to take off despite growing concerns about inflation.
The stock market had its best day in three months. The Dow Jones industrial average rose more than 190 points, or 1.6 percent, erasing most of its losses since the unrest in Libya began.
And some analysts raised their forecasts for how many jobs the economy created last month. The consensus is 175,000, but many economists are now estimating 200,000 or more, and they expect the pace to hold for the rest of the year.