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Retailer shares mixed despite strong January

NEW YORK (AP) -- Shares of retailers were mixed Thursday after an economist said discounts that helped push up January sales figures could also make it tougher for stores to convince shoppers to spend in coming months.

Overall 20 retailers reported that revenue at stores opened at least a year — an important indicator of a store's health — rose an average of 5.1 percent, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers. That's above the trade group's 3 percent estimate and the 4.5 percent increase posted in December.

Retailers were coming off an underwhelming holiday season in which they had to do a lot of discounting to get shoppers to buy. January is typically when stores have clearance sales on winter merchandise to make room for spring items.

Michael Niemira, chief economist at the ICSC, said January could end up marking "one of the highest points of the year." Rising gas prices and higher payroll taxes are also expected to be a hurdle for companies, with consumers pulling back on spending.

Among those that reported stronger-than-expected growth in January were Target Corp., Macy's Inc. and Gap Inc., which owns Old Navy and Banana Republic in addition to its namesake stores. Others fared poorly and noted the slowdown in spending over the course of the month.

Wet Seal Inc., which said sales at stores open at least a year fell 9.4 percent during January, said sales were strong in the first week of the month but subsequently declined. The company said it responded with "aggressive promotional and clearance strategies" that enabled it to end the fiscal year with a clean inventory.

Cato Corp., which sells women's and girls' clothing, also said sales worsened throughout the month because of delays in shoppers' tax refunds and the hit to their income from higher payroll taxes. The company, which runs about 1,300 stores in the U.S., said sales fell 12 percent in January.

In afternoon trading Gap shares were down $1, or 3 percent, at $32.22. Cato fell $1.44, or 5.2 percent, at $26.12. Wet Seal rose 4 cents at $2.91. Macy's shares were up 67 cents at $40.15. Target lost 34 cents to $62.35.