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At a glance
Other economic reports released Thursday included:
U.S. trade deficit: It widened in January, reflecting a big jump in oil imports and a drop in exports. The deficit rose to $44.4 billion, an increase of 16.5 percent from December.
Jobless claims: The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid fell to a seasonally adjusted 340,000 last week, driving down the four-week average to its lowest level in five years. Applications for benefits fell 7,000 in the week ended March 2.
U.S. worker productivity: It shrank in the final three months of last year, mostly because of temporary factors that dragged down growth. Productivity, the amount of output per hour of work, contracted at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.9 percent in the October-December quarter. It followed a 3.1 percent gain in the July-September quarter.

Retail sales ice up in February

After tax increase, few crowds emerge for clearance items

– Americans cut back on spending in February as cold weather and economic challenges chilled their appetite for spring merchandise.

The nation’s retailers Thursday reported that sales slowed in February, a time when most stores get rid of winter merchandise and bring in swimsuits, ankle length pants and other spring fashions.

But Americans spent more judiciously during the month as they contended with an increase in the payroll tax of 2 percentage points, income tax refunds that came later than usual and rising gasoline prices. Winter storms throughout much of the country in February also likely made spring merchandise less appealing to them.

“February was a difficult month,” said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics LLC., a research firm. “Retailers faced significant headwinds.”

February’s tally reflects a drop in sales growth from January. Overall, 14 retailers reported Thursday that revenue at stores open at least a year – an indicator of retail health – rose an average of 4.1 percent, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, an industry trade group. That compares with a 5.1 percent increase in January, and a rise of 6.7 percent in February 2012.

But the latest results also mark a reduction in the number of stores reporting monthly revenue, including big names like Target, Macy’s and Nordstrom. Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, hasn’t reported on a monthly basis in years.

With the shrinking list, Costco, which posted a 6 percent gain in February, now accounts for about two-thirds of the tally. In total, the retailers that report monthly data represent about 6 percent of the $2.4 trillion in U.S. retail industry sales.