Spring’s arrival late in April gave retail sales a light boost as Americans emerged from hibernation to spend on cars, gardening goods and building supplies.
From March to April, sales rose a slight 0.1% after declining a revised 0.5% from February to March, according to the Commerce Department. Wall Street had expected a 0.3% slide.
The dissipation of the bitter weather that had kept many consumers cooped up at home, coupled with higher home prices, the better-than-expected job market and the record stock performance, helped the sales figures jump 3.7% compared with April 2012.
Consumer spending is a key measure of the nation’s economic health, as it is estimated to make up the majority of domestic economic activity.
Car dealers and other motor vehicle and parts sellers said monthly sales ticked up 1% in April and surged 7.7% from the year-earlier period after slumping 0.6% in what analysts at Credit Suisse called a “sluggish March.”
Without car sales, retail sales would have slumped 0.1%, according to the government.
The warmer temperatures across much of the nation also got Americans into home improvement mode, as sales of building materials and garden supply goods ramped up 1.5% in April from March. Shoppers also began to rotate in new seasonal fashions, pushing sales of clothing and accessories up 1.2%.
Activity in other sectors was more muted, however, as department stores reported a mild 0.3% rise in sales and grocery stores suffered a 0.5% dip.
Lower fuel prices led to a 4.7% plunge in gasoline station sales. A measure of so-called core sales, which remove the more volatile auto and gasoline categories, showed retail sales increasing 0.6% in April. Analysts had forecast a 0.3% upswing.
The National Retail Federation said sales stripped of autos, gas stations and restaurants rose 0.6% in April from March and 3.9% from a year earlier.
Matthew Shay, chief executive of the trade group, said in a statement that the escalation of shopping “provided the economy a bit of a reprieve” after the effects of the sequester, higher taxes and “stagnant job and wage growth.”