NEW YORK - American shoppers shrugged off the snow that hammered much of the country in February to buy spring clothing and other items, resulting in solid sales gains for many retailers.

A broad array of merchants, from luxury retailer Nordstrom to midbrow Macy's Inc. and Limited Brands Inc. and discounter Target Corp., reported rising sales on Thursday that beat Wall Street analysts' estimates. The gains came in the face of a decline in consumer confidence.

According to a preliminary list from Thomson Reuters, 14 merchants saw their sales beat estimates. Only three missed expectations.

"It is quite remarkable that many stores beat expectations," said Ken Perkins, president of RetailMetrics, a research firm. "Consumers were willing to shop in between snowstorms."

But he said shoppers are still skittish in the face of high unemployment and tight credit. "The consumer spending recovery is going to be slow, long and gradual," he said.

While consumers are starting to spend a little more, the figures are positive partly because sales in February 2009 were so awful. That month, consumer confidence hit an all-time low.

The figures for sales at stores open at least a year are an important measure of retailers' health.

February, sandwiched between post-holiday clearance and spring, is the second-least important month of the year for retailers after January. Analysts see combined data for March and April as a more accurate measure of consumer behaviour.

But analysts are studying retailers' February reports for signs the economic rebound might strengthen. That's because most economists agree that business investments and exports may drive a short-term recovery, but a robust turnaround in consumer spending is essential to keep it going.

Consumer confidence dove unexpectedly in February. And unemployment, 9.7 per cent in January, is expected to increase to 9.8 per cent in February. Economists say snowstorms could have inflated job losses by as much as 100,000. The Labor Department is to report job figures on Friday.

Thursday's reports offered some encouraging signs that shopppers were willing to pay full price for spring clothing, analysts said.

Target, the nation's second largest discounter behind Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said February sales in stores open at least one year rose 2.4 per cent as more customers came into stores and spent more compared with a year ago.

Results beat Target's expectations of a flat to slight rise in the sales figure. Analysts had expected a 1 per cent increase. However, food and household essentials remained the biggest sellers with furniture and apparel sales about flat with last year.

The company expects April sales in stores open at least one year to be up in the mid-to upper-single digits because of an earlier Easter.

Rival Wal-Mart Stores Inc. stopped reporting sales results on a monthly basis last year.

Discounter Fred's Inc. reported that its sales at stores open at least a year climbed 2 per cent in February as customers headed to its stores to take advantage of advertised promotions. That was better than the 0.3 per cent decline analysts had expected.

Among department stores, Macy's topped expectations and said its sales at stores open at least a year would have gone higher if shoppers hadn't been disrupted by winter storms.

The department store operator reported a 3.7 per cent gain, above the 1.4 per cent estimate.

CEO Terry J. Lundgren said sales at stores open at least a year would have been up about 5 per cent without the snow.

J.C. Penney reported a 1.2 per cent gain in sales at stores open at least a year. Analysts had expected a 1.3 per cent drop.

Victoria's Secret parent Limited Brands, which raised their February sales outlook last week, enjoyed a 10 per cent increase. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected a 9.7 per cent gain.

Teen retailer Wet Seal had a 4.7 per cent gain. Analysts expected a drop of 2.7 per cent.