WASHINGTON: Auto sales surged in March, sending the US retail sector higher for the first time in four months, helped by increased spending in other areas, according to government data released on Monday (Apr 16).
Consumers snapped up electronics, shopped online and frequented bars and restaurants, but sales sagged at department stores, gas stations and clothing outlets, according to the Commerce Department report.
The higher spending could support GDP growth in the first quarter, which is expected to be sluggish.
Retail spending in the world's largest economy gained 0.6 per cent for the month, rising to US$494.6 billion, overshooting economists' expectations and marking the biggest gain since November.
The result put sales up 4.5 per cent over the same month last year, pointing to a trend of steady overall increases.
Auto sales gained two per cent, the biggest increase in six months.
The March numbers pointed to a recovery in some retail sectors that had sagged from heights reached late last year as homeowners in storm-hit southern regions worked to rebuild after the year's back-to-back late summer hurricanes.
"Spending has now returned to the pre-hurricane track," Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics said in a research note.
"Together with a weather-induced jump in spending on utility energy, this report means that total consumers' spending for March will look quite strong," he added.
But the gain is unlikely to be enough to offset the weakness in January and February.
January sales were revised down by 0.1 per cent to a decline of 0.2 per cent, after a 0.1 per cent drop in February.
Excluding the volatile auto sector, March sales rose 0.2 per cent, matching an analyst forecast and the same increase recorded in February. Excluding both autos and gasoline, sales rose 0.3 per cent for the month.
Personal consumption and retail spending had disappointed analysts in recent months, feeding expectations the US economy will see slower growth in the first quarter of the year.
Sales at home furnishing stores rose 0.7 per cent, and were up 0.5 per cent at electronics stores. Bars and restaurants gained 0.4 per cent.
Non-store retailers like Amazon continued to gain, rising 0.8 per cent for the month, putting them up nearly 10 per cent over March of last year.
But department stores fell 0.3 per cent, continuing a long-running decline.