Consumers stepped up their shopping in May after the tax rebate checks hit bank accounts, giving many of the nation's retailers a boost and helping them to top analyst estimates.
Still, there continue to be signs that consumers are continuing to focus on necessities such as food and gas.
They also are hunting for bargains to stretch their dollar amid a weak economy and gasoline prices above $4 a gallon in some markets.
"Shoppers are counting on those tax rebates for everyday spending and even a few big-ticket purchases," Frank Badillo, Senior Economist at TNS Retail Forward. "The retail numbers suggest those dollars are starting to have an impact that should last for several months as more shoppers get their rebates."
Overall, same-store sales rose 2.5 percent, more than twice the average 1.2 percent increase forecast by analysts, according to Thomson Reuters data. That compares with a 2.9 percent increase a year earlier.
A total of 58 percent of retailers covered exceeded analysts expectations, while about one-third missed estimates, according to Thomson Reuters.
The strongest results came from discounters and several teen and children apparel retailers, while many department store operators continued to struggle.
"I think what we're going to be seeing is the value retailers continue to perform better," said Dana Telsey, chief research officer at Telsey Advisory Group, in an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box."
Wal-Mart Stores, the world's largest retailer, solidly outpaced estimates, helped in part by consumers who spent their tax rebates at Wal-Mart's stores.
Wal-Mart Chief Financial Officer Tom Schoewe said about $350 milllion in economic stimulus checks were cashed at Wal-Mart's stores, but there was no way of knowing how much of that money was spent at the store. However, he said, the increase in sales in the latest month was not entirely due to the checks.
Wal-Mart said same-store sales rose 3.9 percent, excluding fuel, topping the average analyst estimates from Thomson Reuters, which called for a 1.6 percent increase.
Including fuel, total same-store sales rose 4.4 percent.
Wal-Mart expects same-store sales in June to rise between 2 percent and 4 percent.
According to Schoewe, consumers are making fewer trips to the store due to the higher cost of gasoline. While there, they are tending to spend more per trip.
Costco Wholesale, the largest U.S. warehouse club, and rivalBJ's Wholesale Club also are benefiting from a more value-conscious consumer. Both topped analyst's estimates.
Costco said same-store sales rose 9 percent, helped by higher gasoline prices, food inflation and strength in foreign currency. Analysts, on average, were expecting the company's same-store sales to rise 6.9 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.
BJ's same-store sales rose 13.4 percent in May, including a contribution from gasoline sales of 6.6 percent.
Analysts had expected an 8.9 percent sales increase.
Where the Surprises Are
One of the largest sales surprises came from The Buckle , which posted a 34.7 percent increase in same-store sales, far exceeding the 13 percent estimate.
Children's Place also had a strong showing will its same-store results up 10 percent, compared with a 4.3 percent average analyst estimate.
J.C. Penney topped analysts' estimates by posting a narrower-than-expected decline in same-store sales. The department store chain said its same-store sales fell 4.4 percent, compared with the 5.8 percent decline analysts forecast.
High-end retailer Nordstromalso fared well, helped by a decision to move up a sale event to an earlier time of the year.
Nordstrom same-store sales jumped 10.9 percent, compared with the 8.1 percent estimate from analysts.
But that strategy came back to punish Saks , which suffered in May from shifting a clearance sale into the month of April.
Same-store sales tumbled 8.7 percent at Saks, hurt by the timing of the sale and weak sales of women's apparel. That decline was bigger than the 7.5 percent drop analysts expected.
In general, sales of clothing were hurt the weather in May, which was the coldest since 2002, according to Planalytics.
Also falling short of analysts' estimates were SteinMart, Bon-Ton Stores, Limited Brands, and Gap.
SteinMart has posted the worst results so far with a decline in same-store sales of 12.4%, a wider decrease than the 9.5% mean decline estimate of three Wall Street analysts.
Bon-Ton Stores posted the biggest miss, with a same-store sales decline of 9.9%. Two analysts had expected a decline of 5% for the month.
Limited , the owner of Victoria's Secret and other stores, posted a a 6 percent decline, versus an estimate of down 5.5 percent.
Gap posted a 14 percent drop in same-store sales, compared with an average estimate of 9.5 percent. Gap has been hurt by its struggling Old Navy unit.
Target also fell slightly short of analysts' estimates. The company said its same-store sales fell 0.7 percent, compared with an estimated decline of 0.2 percent from analysts.
-Reuters and AP contributed to this report.