Stocks were little changed on Thursday after the government said jobless claims rose slightly, with investors in a holding pattern ahead of key monthly non-farm payroll data on Friday.

The S&P retail index <.RLX> added 0.6 percent after many retailers reported better-than-expected December sales.

The Labor Department said the number of people filing initial jobless claims edged up last week. In a Friday report, economists expect a loss of 8,000 non-farm jobs in December after an inexpertly small total of 11,000 job losses in November.

People today are concerned about tomorrow's report, since we're still expecting losses and initial claims rose, said John Massey, portfolio manager at SunAmerica Asset Management in Jersey City, New Jersey.

If the number is weak tomorrow, we could see a fair pullback on that.

Speaking to university students in Shanghai, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said the U.S. labor market is improving and the economy is close to the point where unemployment will start to fall.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was unchanged at 10,573.83, up less than one-tenth of 1 percent. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was flat at 1,137.13. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> fell 10.68 points, or 0.46 percent, at 2,290.36.

U.S. retailers posted better-than-expected December sales, and many raised profit forecasts after a late holiday shopping surge and discounts that were more modest than a year ago.

For an illustration, see

Still, Abercrombie & Fitch sank 7.4 percent to $33.54 after December sales fell 19 percent, and American Eagle Outfitters Inc slid 1.6 percent to $17.28.

Sears Holding Corp was a bright spot, rising 11 percent to $98.45 after forecasting strong fourth-quarter profit.

One of the top boosts on the Dow was Bank of America , up 2.8 percent to $16.85 after Credit Suisse upgraded its rating to outperform from neutral.

The Dow's top drag was 3M Co , falling nearly 1 percent to $82.92 after JPMorgan cut the rating to neutral.

(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)