Stocks pared early gains on Thursday, hurt as weaker-than-expected energy demand hit the oil and gas sector, offsetting solid February retail sales figures.

Natural gas futures slid after a government report showed an unexpectedly light inventory draw on supplies. The NYSE Arca Natural Gas index <.XNG> slipped 0.9 percent.

Better-than-forecast February retail sales, however, which were expected to have been hurt by the severe weather across the United States, boosted shares of retailers.

Target Corp added 1.9 percent to $52.62 after it said same-store sales rose 2.4 percent for the month.

The S&P retail index <.RLX> rose 0.8 percent.

Data from the National Association of Realtors showed contracts for pending home sales fell unexpectedly in January, while a government report showed factory orders rose 1.7 percent for the month, in-line with expectations.

Earlier data showed the number of U.S. workers filing new claims for state unemployment benefits fell as expected last week, while those continuing to receive benefits dropped to its lowest level in over a year.

The data presents a mixed picture, but we had some good news earlier with the retail sales and jobless claims data, said James Meyer, chief investment officer at Tower Bridge Advisers in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.

Of 28 retailers reporting sales, 76 percent have topped analyst expectations, with a median surprise of 2.1 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> gained 7.56 points, or 0.07 percent, to 10,404.32. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> added 0.12 points, or 0.01 percent, to 1,118.91. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> dropped 2.38 points, or 0.10 percent, to 2,278.30.

(Additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Padraic Cassidy)