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Retail sales inch higher as jobless claims fall

A woman shops at a Kohl's department store

A woman shops at a Kohl's department store on Dec. 26, 2013 in Alhambra, Calif. U.S. retail sales turned positive in February after two down months, the Commerce Department said March 13, 2014, more evidence that slow economic activity since November could largely be weather-related. Credit: Getty Images

U.S. retail sales rebounded in February, and new applications for unemployment benefits hit a three-month low last week, suggesting some strength in the economy after harsh weather abruptly slowed activity in recent months.

The Commerce Department said Thursday retail sales increased 0.3 percent last month as receipts rose in most categories. That followed a revised 0.6 percent drop in January and ended two straight months of declines.

"The consumer appears to be back in the game," said Millan Mulraine, deputy chief economist at TD Securities in New York. "We see this as further confirmation that the underlying momentum in the economy remains quite favorable, and we look for further upside spending momentum in the coming months."

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales rising 0.2 percent in February.

An unusually cold and snowy winter disrupted economic activity at the end of 2013 and the beginning of this year. Economists had expected only a marginal increase in retail sales in February after snow and ice blanketed densely populated regions during the first half of the month.

In a separate report, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 315,000.

That was the lowest reading since late November. Economists had forecast first-time applications for jobless benefits rising to 330,000 in the week ended March 8.

The four-week moving average for new claims, considered a better measure of underlying labor market conditions as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell to its lowest level since early December.

Harsh weather has hurt job growth, but the labor market is starting to break out of winter's grip. Nonfarm payrolls increased 175,000 in February.

Retail sales are expected to accelerate in the spring as warmer temperatures and improving household finances help to unleash pent-up demand.

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