The mood of the nation's small-business owners improved last month, but remained downbeat amid weaker sales and earnings. Here's a look at this week's economic developments and how they may affect your business.

Small-Business Optimism Mixed

After dropping to a 17-year low, the outlook of the nation's small-business owners improved slightly last month, the National Federation of Independent Business reported Thursday.

Six of 10 component's of the Washington-based lobby group's monthly small-business optimism index made gains in February, including plans to boost jobs and spending. Though fewer small employers reported unfilled job openings last month, nearly half hired or tried to hire new workers.

"A recession mentality has not yet settled into labor market activity," William Dunkelberg, the group's chief economist, said in a statement.

At the same time, fewer owners reported sales increases, while gains in earnings remained at all-time lows. "Clearly, the economy is weak compared to six months ago," Dunkelberg said.

A separate report this week by Wells Fargo showed optimism among small-business owners continuing a downward trend, based on their financial situation, cash flow issues, and revenues, among other factors.

Retail Sales Down

Led by sharp declines at auto dealerships, retail sales continued a downturn slide last month, dropping by 0.6 percent from January, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

Furniture, electronics and appliance stores all reported weaker sales last month, while clothing, sporting goods and health-care stores saw gains.

The results are based on a survey of 5,500 retail outlets across the country.

Jobless Claims Steady

Following ups and downs in recent weeks, the number of new claims for unemployment benefits held steady at 353,000 last week, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

The advanced seasonally adjusted insured unemployment rate the previous week was 2.1 percent, representing about 2.828 million people collecting jobless benefits.