Warm weather might have weighed on winter sales of coats, boots and other cold climate basics at the start of the season, but spring appears to have sprung early for many US apparel retailers in February.

Indeed, figures released yesterday (1 March) showed sales trended upwards last month as the sunshine enticed shoppers out in search of new merchandise and clearance bargains. Sales were also lifted by special events across the three-day Presidents Day weekend and Valentine's Day.

An even bigger impact is the improving economy, with a survey earlier in the week suggesting US consumers were in the most upbeat mood for a year in February.

"Consumer confidence, which had declined last month, posted a sizeable improvement in February," said Lynn Franco, director of The Conference Board, which carried out the research.

"The Index is now close to levels last seen a year ago," she said, adding: "Despite further increases in gas prices, they are more optimistic about the short-term outlook for the economy, job prospects, and their financial situation. " 

As always, there were winners and losers on the retail front. Same-store sales at Gap, the US' largest specialty apparel retailer, climbed 4% - its first increase in 8 months - with growth across all North American units helped by a strong response to spring products.

Luxury department-store chain Nordstrom Inc booked a 10% rise, which it partly attributed to the earlier timing of a shoe-clearance sale, and Saks Inc said its 6.6% was driven by women's contemporary and 'wear now' apparel and shoes.

Target Corp's same-store sales rose 7%, helped by stronger-than-expected customer traffic combined with a solid increase in transaction size. And Macy's Inc reported a 4.6% rise in comparable-store sales, thanks to early spring merchandise in women's apparel, and strong trends in its shoe and men's departments.

Gains of 9% were seen at both discount retailer Ross Stores Inc and off-price retailer TJX Cos Inc.

But some retailers continue to struggle. Same-store sales slipped 0.8% at fellow department store operator Kohl's Corp, and dropped 5.8% at teen clothier Wet Seal Inc. In contrast, another teen fashion retailer Buckle Inc booked a 14.8% jump in sales.

Limited Brands Inc, parent of the Victoria's Secret lingerie chain, benefited from Valentine's Day and reported an 8% rise in same-store sales.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) had earlier forecast that the average person's spend for this event would rise 8.5% on last year to $126.03 - a 10-year high - with total spending expected to reach $17.6bn.

As well as being one of the smallest months of the year for sales, February is largely a transition month for US clothing retailers as they continue to clear winter merchandise and bring in the first spring lines.

So while the strong results will be seen as a foretaste of consumer demand, a better indicator is likely to come in March and April.

Rising fuel prices, in particular, are a looming concern. Already nearing $4 a gallon, this additional cost could see consumers, especially lower-income shoppers, pull back on their discretionary spending and cut back on the number of trips they make to the stores.