American consumers resumed spending in March, snapping up autos ahead of the summer driving season and pushing the US retail sector to its biggest gains in 18 months, government data showed Thursday.
The unexpectedly strong month for the key retail sector helped recover losses after December’s worrisome slump, according to the Commerce Department.
The sector’s performance pointed to resilience in consumption by ordinary members of the public — a main driver of the world’s largest economy — and should support GDP growth in the first quarter, which is nevertheless expected to be weaker than the final quarter of 2018.
Total retail sales rose 1.6 percent to $514.1 billion, well above the 0.9 percent economists had been expecting.
The result put the retail sector 3.6 percent above March of last year.
Auto sales zoomed 3.1 percent higher, also the strongest showing in a year and a half, after a 0.1 percent dip.
Excluding the volatile auto sector, sales rose by a slower 0.9 percent, although this was still above expectations.
Department stores were flat and electronics retailers reported only token gains after February’s declines. Electronics retailers are now down 2.7 year-on-year.
Nevertheless, Americans in March also bought more clothing, furniture and groceries than in February and resumed shopping online after a soft patch.
“In short, spending surged, consistent with some catch-up after exaggerated weakness. The net result is still a weak pace in (the first quarter) as a whole, but with positive momentum as the quarter ended,” Jim O’Sullivan of High Frequency Economics said in a client note.
GDP growth estimates were likely to be revised upwards in light of the new numbers, he added.