January sales at major U.S. retailers blew past analysts' expectations as shoppers braved snowstorms in an unexpected sign of consumer strength.

Some retailers, including Limited Brands Inc, Gap Inc, Aeropostale Inc and TJX Cos Inc, also raised their profit estimates for the holiday quarter, cheering investors who were worried about rising costs of cotton and other commodities. The Standard & Poor's Retail index rose 1.1 percent.

Shares of Victoria's Secret parent Limited, apparel retailer Gap and upscale chain Nordstrom Inc were among the top percentage gainers on Thursday.

In a moment where investors are worried about increasing cost pressures, it was comforting to see some companies increase their bottom-line expectations, said Lawrence Creatura, a portfolio manager at Federated Clover Investment Advisors in Rochester, New York.

Retailers posted a 4.2 percent increase in sales at stores open at least a year, beating Wall Street expectations for a 2.7 percent gain, according to the Thomson Reuters same-store sales index of 28 companies.

We thought weather would have more of an impact, said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer of Solaris Asset Management. Our store checks showed less people in stores, but obviously, those who are going to stores are buying.

The sales figures, combined with other data on Thursday, paint a picture of economic recovery. U.S. government reports on Thursday showed a sharp fall in new U.S. claims for unemployment benefits last week and stronger-than-expected nonfarm productivity in the fourth quarter.

The International Council of Shopping Centers expects same-store sales to rise 2.5 percent to 3 percent in February.

The consumer is certainly being frugal, but we see them continue to spend slowly but steadily, Ghriskey said. It's a little early to forecast how spring's going to be.

Spring sales could depend on the mood of shoppers like New Jersey resident Claudia Carrmoma, 38, who works at a jewelry store in Manhattan.

Carrmoma's spring shopping plan depends on the money I make, she said. I feel like I should save now.


Some cautioned against being too optimistic as unemployment remains high and the U.S. economic recovery remains uncertain.

We expect the economic environment to remain challenging, Target Corp Chief Executive Officer Gregg Steinhafel said. The discounter reported a 1.7 percent rise in sales at stores open at least a year, below the analysts' average forecast of 1.9 percent, on weak demand for pricey items such as electronics.

Like Target, many retailers managed their inventory well, meaning fewer clearance goods were available in a typically promotional month. But that disappointed bargain-hungry shoppers.

One of the biggest sales increases came from Limited Brands, which has won praise from analysts for its efforts to become a destination for small gifts. It reported a 24 percent rise in same-store sales, well past analysts' estimates of 6.7 percent.

Other retailers were not so lucky as the snowiest January in six years played havoc with hopes of a strong ending to the holiday season. The weather curbed shopper traffic in malls and stores, especially in the Northeast, where there were multiple snowstorms.

Retailers whose sales missed analysts' expectations included Abercrombie & Fitch Co and J.C. Penney Co Inc. Penney, however, raised its quarterly profit estimate as it kept expenses and inventory under control.

January is the smallest contributor to the all-important fourth quarter for retailers.

On Wednesday, mall-based teen apparel chain Hot Topic Inc reported a 3.3 percent fall in January same-store sales, while analysts expected only a 2.8 percent decline. On the other hand, Zumiez beat estimates with a 15.3 percent rise.

(Reporting by Dhanya Skariachan, Nivedita Bhattacharjee, Jessica Wohl, Phil Wahba, Martinne Geller, Helen Chernikoff, Ben Klayman and Nallur Sethuraman; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn, Brad Dorfman, Gunna Dickson)