Updated from 11:48 a.m. EST

The nation's retailers posted January sales that came in mostly stronger than expected, with discount retailers topping estimates and the majority of apparel retailers reporting gains.

A Thomson Financial/First Call survey of 33 major retailers showed that same-store sales rose 4.4% last month, easily beating the consensus estimate for a 2.4% increase. To give some indication of how important Wal-Mart ( WMT) is to the nation's economy, and the retailers in particular, comparable sales rose 1.4% excluding the monthly results of the Bentonville, Ark., seller of clothes, hardware, toys, groceries and basically everything else.

Excluding Wal-Mart, which said comparable sales rose 8.3% in January, surpassing estimates of a 6.2% increase, the retailers were expected to see same-store sales increase 0.2% last month. Wal-Mart's total sales climbed 13.8% to $15.4 billion.

Same-store sales at discounters rose 7.3%, as consumers remained price-conscious. The group was expected to see sales increase 5.2%. Sales at department stores fell 2.9%, but they were expected to drop 3.9%. Apparel sales fell 1.2% in January, whereas a 4% decline was forecast.

"January is a clearance month, so it's not an overly important indicator," said Tony Crescenzi, a strategist at Miller Tabak. "But the fact that sales were up signals the consumer is willing to spend."

The overall results are especially impressive considering they follow a better-than-expected holiday shopping season. Consumer spending has been holding up well in the face of the nation's first recession in a decade, and the January figures indicate that shoppers still haven't been compelled to significantly retrench.

The activity of U.S. consumers accounts for about two-thirds of the nation's gross domestic product . A preliminary reading on fourth-quarter GDP revealed surprising growth of 0.2%. Analysts were expecting a decline of 1.1%, but raging car sales and a surge in military spending contributed to the result. For the moment though, the January retail sales were in the spotlight, and the S&P Retail Index was ahead by 4% in recent trading.

  • Abercrombie & Fitch ( ANF) said same-store sales were down 14% in January, more than the 12% estimated drop. Total sales fell 17.2% to $64.3 million.

  • AnnTaylor's ( ANN) January same-store sales jumped 14.6%, burying the consensus estimate that sales would rise 2.2%. Total sales increased 2.5% to $85 million. The company said it continues to be cautious about the economic uncertainties of 2002 and has "planned inventory levels accordingly." For the upcoming spring season, AnnTaylor expects same-store sales to be unchanged from last year. For the fall, the company is projecting comparable-store sales growth in the low-single-digit range.

  • BJ's Wholesale ( BJ) said same-store sales climbed 2.7% in January, while total sales increased 8.9% to $364.3 million. Analysts were expecting comparable sales to rise 4%. Sales for the fourth quarter rose 9.3% to $1.5 billion. The company also reaffirmed its fourth-quarter earnings expectation of 76 cents to 78 cents a share.

  • Costco ( COST) said same-store sales climbed 7% in January, topping expectations for a 5.2% increase. Total sales rose 13% to $2.73 billion.

  • Dollar General ( DG) said same-store sales bumped up 6.4%, beating estimates for a 5.5% pop. But the discounter's total sales fell 5%.

  • Federated ( FD) said same-store sales declined 8.8%, narrower than the 9.5% expected drop. Net sales dropped 25% to $827 million.

  • Gap ( GPS) said same-store sales decreased 16% in January, compared with estimates for a 12.1% decline. Total sales fell 4.9% to $684 million.

  • Intimate Brands ( IBI) said same-store sales were up 7% in January, while analysts were expecting a decline of 0.7%. Total sales were down 16% to $341.8 million.

  • J.C. Penney ( JCP) said same-store sales lifted 5.9% in January, better than the 4.9% estimate. The department store said total sales were up 1.4% to $2.14 billion.

  • Kohl's ( KSS) said same-store sales advanced 11.5% in January, trouncing forecasts for a 5.4% improvement. Total sales rose 3.4% to $383.9 million

  • May Department Stores ( MAY) said same-store sales fell 10.7%, wider than the expected 8.2% loss. Total sales fell 7.2% to $691 million.

  • Pacific Sunwear ( PSUN) said same-store sales increased 0.4% in January. Total sales for the fourth quarter rose 14.6% to $207.6 million. Analysts were looking for a 1.3% increase in comparable sales.

  • Pier 1 Imports ( PIR) said January same-store sales increased 5.5% from the same month last year. Total sales rose 14% to $106.1 million.

  • Saks ( SKS) said same-store sales rose 2.1%, beating forecasts that they would fall 5%. Total sales 1.7% to $328.5 million.

  • Sears ( S) said same-store sales dropped 3.4%, more than the 3.1% fall that was expected. Total sales fell 2.3% to $1.69 billion.

  • ShopKo ( SKO) said January same-store sales rose 0.8%. Total sales for the month fell 5.6% to $198.7 million. Excluding sales from stores closed in the first quarter, consolidated sales for the latest quarter declined 0.9% to $1 billion. The company expects same-store sales in February to be flat or slightly positive.

  • Talbots ( TLB) same-store sales rose 7.7% last month, beating estimates of a 4.3% increase. Total sales rose 9% to $107.3 million. The company still expects to earn 52 cents to 54 cents a share in the fourth quarter. For next fiscal year, the company hopes to see earnings to grow "a minimum of 15%."

  • Target ( TGT) said same-store sales rose 5.8%, compared with predictions for a 4.2% advance. The discounter said net sales fell 9%, however.