NEW YORK -- Consumers continued their yearlong buying binge in January, despite some harsh weather that paralyzed much of the country and forced many stores to close.
Storeowners reported today that sales last month rose to better-than-expected levels, finishing off what has been strongest fiscal year for the nation's retailers since the mid-1980s.
With the robust sales figures in hand, Wall Street analysts today raised their fourth-quarter earnings estimates for many retailers, including Neiman Marcus and May Department Stores.
''Retail sales were shockingly great, and that's surprising because of the cold and snow at the end of the month should have kept people at home,'' said Kurt Barnard, who runs Barnard's Retail Trend Report, an Upper Montclair, N.J.-based consulting firm.
The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi retail sales index, which tracks sales at about 80 chains, rose 5.4 percent in January based on a preliminary estimate, above the 4 percent gain that was expected.
January's robust gains follows a very strong 12 months for retailers, whose fiscal year runs from February to January. The Bank of Tokyo's index rose 6.5 percent for the year, the highest level since 1984.
The strong sales over the past year came amid low unemployment and surging stock prices, which made Americans feel good about their finances and encouraged them to spend freely.
While there was concern that borrowing and spending would slow after the Federal Reserve raised interest rates three times last year, there have been no signs yet that consumer have drastically moderated their buying.
Fears of a spending slowdown were renewed on Wednesday after the Fed raised rates another quarter percentage point. But analysts don't expect an immediate buying halt on the horizon.
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