MANATEE -- Bealls has seen brisk sales since January of shorts, T-shirts and sandals thanks to the temperate weather.
That, plus the start of a strong snowbird season, has Bealls Chief Executive Officer Steve Knopik hopeful that retail sales will be up for 2012.
Weve been pleased with our results for the first months of the calendar year, he said.
On Thursday, many retailers nationwide reported strong sales gains for February in the latest sign that Americans are feeling more confident in the economy, experts said.
A diverse group including Target Corp., Macys Inc. and Limited Brands Inc., reported sales gains that exceeded Wall Street estimates. Even Gap Inc., long mired in a sales slump, posted an unexpected increase.
The figures, based on revenue at stores opened at least a year, are considered an indicator of a retailers health. Only a small group of retailers report monthly sales figures. But industry watchers say those merchants that do post monthly numbers offer a snapshot of consumer spending, which accounts for more than 70 percent of all economic activity.
This was a very strong month. A new life has been breathed into the retailers, said Ken Perkins, president of Retail Metrics, a research firm. Consumers are starting to feel much better about their overall situation.
Overall, merchants on Thursday reported a 6.7 percent increase for February, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers tally of 20 retailers. Thats above the 3 to 3.5 percent gain that ICSC had expected. Februarys results marked the biggest gain since June 2011 when the index was up 6.9 percent as shoppers took advantage of deep promotions on summer merchandise.
Gross retail sales have surged statewide and locally as well over the past several months.
Floridas preliminary gross sales, which include purchases made at all retail outlets, were higher in January than any previous month since 2003 at $112.9 billion, the latest records available from the Florida Department of Revenue.
The $1.05 billion in gross sales reported in Manatee in January was the best mark since January 2008. In fact, gross sales between December and January were up double-digits from the same months in 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, state records show.
In Sarasota, the countys $1.26 billion in gross sales in January similarly were the strongest since the recession took its toll on Southwest Florida.
The cumulative totals between January and December were up 5.5 percent from last year and 11 percent the year before.
The Premier Outlet Mall in Ellenton reported encouraging trends such as strong traffic, lots of international shoppers, and a busy Presidents Day weekend sale event, according to General Manager William Mann.
But there are reasons for some caution among retailers. Rising gas prices could threaten consumer spending particularly among the low-to middle income shopper. The price of gas has jumped 45 cents since Jan. 1 and is the highest on record for this time of year, an average of $3.73 a gallon.
Knopik said Bealls is viewing the coming months with some caution with the idea that rising gas prices could cut into spending income.
The upcoming elections also dont bode well for retailers, Knopik said.
Presidential elections can flood airwaves with negative information about how bad things are. That doesnt do a lot for consumer confidence, he said.
He does think the state is on a better economic footing than in 2011, however.
I dont think anybody can say the Florida economy is back yet, Knopik said.
-- Jennifer Rich, Herald Business Editor, contributed to this report