U.S. stocks stayed steady on Friday as data showing retail sales rose unexpectedly last month was offset by weaker consumer sentiment, sending mixed signals about the economic outlook.

Sentiment declined slightly in early March from the month before, according to a survey, which noted a less positive view of the job outlook.

The data offset a report earlier in the day that February retail sales rose, while forecasts had called for a decline. The news bolstered hopes the recovery is sustainable. An S&Pindex of retailers' stocks <.RLX> gained 0.6 percent.

Stocks struggled to make headway, a day after the S&P 500 hit a 17-month closing high on Thursday.

The prevailing opinion is the market is going to continue to work higher so people don't want to be selling things they expect three to six months from now will be higher, said Michael James, senior trader at regional investment bank Wedbush Morgan in Los Angeles.

Caterpillar Inc jumped 2.5 percent to $60.38 and ranked as the Dow's top advancer, a day after the heavy equipment maker said it may build a new hydraulic excavator plant in the United States.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was up 5.22 points, or 0.05 percent, at 10,617.06. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was down 0.28 of a point, or 0.02 percent, at 1,149.96. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was down 1.37 points, or 0.06 percent, at 2,367.09.

But shares of Coca-Cola Co and Exxon Mobil declined and were among the top drags on the Dow, along with manufacturer United Technologies Corp , which reiterated its 2010 profit outlook.

Coca-Cola was down 0.5 percent at $53.33, while Exxon was down 0.8 percent at $66.69. United Technologies was down 0.8 percent at $71.45.

CF Industries Holdings Inc fell 4.5 percent to $96.13 after Agrium Inc abandoned its $5.4 billion bid for the company and brought CF closer to closing a deal with Terra Industries Inc . Agrium jumped 8.2 percent to $72.25.

In other economic data, the Commerce Department said business inventories were unchanged in January, compared with a forecast for a rise of 0.2 percent.

(Reporting by Caroline Valetkevitch; Editing by Jan Paschal)