shoppers-visit-stores-in-new-yorks-soho-neighborhood-earlier-this-week-clothing-and-sporting-goods-stores-were-among-the-retailers-reporting-lower-sales-in-february
Shoppers visit stores in New York’s Soho neighborhood earlier this week. Clothing and sporting-goods stores were among the retailers reporting lower sales in February.

WASHINGTON — Americans spent only slightly more last month at retail stores compared with January, a sign of consumer caution despite rising optimism about the economy.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that retail sales ticked up a seasonally adjusted 0.1 percent in February, after a much bigger gain of 0.6 percent the previous month. January’s gain was revised higher.

The figures suggest that strong job gains this year, near record-high stock prices and decent pay gains haven’t yet lifted spending. But last month’s sluggish pace could prove temporary.

Economists note that spending was likely held back by delays in tax-refund payments. A new law has required tougher scrutiny of a tax credit claimed by lower-income taxpayers. Wal-Mart said last month that the delay had slowed sales at its stores in February. Other retailers have reported similar concerns.

About $127 billion in refunds were processed this year through the week that ended Feb. 24, about 10.5 percent less than in the same period in 2016.

Yet tax refunds have started to flow this month, which could trigger a rebound.

February was “relatively weak, and one of the reasons is the delay of tax refunds,” Eugenio Aleman, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC in Charlotte, N.C., said before the report. Still, “confidence numbers are through the roof and if employment continues to grow it’s only going to strengthen…