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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    More from Stocks

    Live at 1 p.m. ET: Our Columnists Take Your Questions on What Stocks to Buy Here

    Live at 1 p.m. ET: Our Columnists Take Your Questions on What Stocks to Buy Here

    Dow Falls Sharply, Nasdaq Sinks as Wall Street Weighs Trump's New Trade Threats

    Dow Falls Sharply, Nasdaq Sinks as Wall Street Weighs Trump's New Trade Threats

    3 Investing Tips From Jim Cramer That Will Help You Survive a Market Correction

    3 Investing Tips From Jim Cramer That Will Help You Survive a Market Correction

    Video: 2018 Is Actually a Normal Year for Stock Market Volatility

    Video: 2018 Is Actually a Normal Year for Stock Market Volatility

    3 Fierce Chinese Tech Stocks to Gamble on Right Now

    3 Fierce Chinese Tech Stocks to Gamble on Right Now