NEW YORK – The nation’s retailers, once hopeful for a strong spring selling season, are being forced to ratchet down their expectations after sales stalled amid the chill of February. Frigid weather stifled consumer demand for lightweight spring apparel. And some industry experts doubt that this season’s fashions – styles such as mini dresses in bright geometric patterns and baby doll dresses – will have broad appeal. Meanwhile, there’s concern that consumers will finally turn frugal because of the housing market’s continuing slump, and that last week’s stock market tumble might also cause shoppers to be more conservative. And there’s the lingering specter of higher gasoline prices. “People don’t necessarily feel less wealthy because the market falls all of the sudden or their housing value is lower,” but if those factors “persist over the next six months, it may affect long-term behavior,” according to Frank Badillo, vice president and senior retail economist at Retail Forward, a retail consulting company. Retailers are scheduled to report February same-store sales, or sales from stores open at least a year, today, but several retailers, including Limited Brands Inc., J.C. Penney Co. and Talbots Inc., have already warned of disappointing results. Same-store sales are considered the best measure of a retailer’s strength. Besides dealing with broad economic issues, merchants were grappling with one of the coldest Februarys on record. Limited said inclement weather affected sales for Valentine’s Day at its Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works chains. “The month has been disappointing, ” said Richard Jaffe, a retail analyst at Stiffel Nicolaus. The cold weather wiped out demand for spring clothes, and, because retailers had done a good job clearing out winter merchandise during a strong January sales period, there was little for shoppers to buy. “It’s cold, and Lord knows I don’t want to be schlepping around to stores,” said Jenny Fishman of New York, who has bought only some shoes over the past few weeks. “I can’t even fathom wearing spring clothes.” “We’re seeing February being soft,” Penney Chairman and Chief Executive Myron E. Ullman III said late last month. But he remained hopeful that sales would rebound with new spring fashions, and the company still has a bullish outlook for the next 12 months. The International Council of Shopping Centers is still sticking with its modest same-store sales-growth forecast of 2.5 percent to 3 percent, but Michael P. Niemira, ICSC’s chief economist and director of research, said winter weather slowed consumer demand at the end of February. While February is one of the least important months of a retailer’s calendar, merchants do hope to get some idea of which spring fashion trends are resonating with shoppers. John Morris, a retail analyst at Wachovia Securities, said other apparel retailers expected to post disappointing February sales include Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Aeropostale Inc., The Children’s Place Retail Stores Inc., and AnnTaylor Stores Co. Morris noted in a report that he expects Gap, whose continued troubles resulted in the departure of its CEO in January, to post a 5 percent same-store sales decline. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has been retooling its merchandising strategy, expects a modest same-store sales gain of 1 percent to 2 percent for February. Meanwhile, rival Target expects same-store sales to rise a robust 4 percent to 6 percent for the month. The big winners are expected to include department stores, particularly high-end stores like Nordstrom Inc., whose customers buy their clothing ahead of the season. Saks Inc., which operates upscale Saks Fifth Avenue, said Wednesday that it had a robust 24.7 percent gain in February same-store sales.160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!