WASHINGTON -- Retail sales unexpectedly rose in April, reflecting broad-based gains that may ease concerns consumers are holding back.
The 0.1 percent increase followed a 0.5 percent drop in March, Commerce Department figures showed Monday in Washington. The median forecast of 81 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for a 0.3 percent drop. The figures used to calculate growth, which exclude categories such as automobiles, also advanced.
The figures may prompt economists to forecast spending this quarter will cool less than previously projected as Americans overcome the January increase in the payroll tax. Lower fuel costs combined with rising stock and home values also are helping boost buying power, which will help underpin purchases as the labor market mends.
"Consumers are staying active and providing support to the economy," said Michael Moran, chief economist at Daiwa Capital Markets America Inc. in New York, who correctly forecast the increase in sales. "We will see a slowdown this quarter, but it won't be dramatic. There will be some damping of spending due to the payroll tax, but it will be mild."
Estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from a drop of 0.9 percent to a 0.7 percent gain. The reading for March was revised from an initially reported decline of 0.4 percent.
Nine of 13 major categories showed gains last month, led by a 1.2 percent advance at clothing stores, the biggest in more than a year. Receipts at general merchandise outlets, which include department stores, climbed 1 percent, the most since March 2012.
Sales at automobile dealers also improved, which is at odds with the industry data that came out earlier this month.
Cars and light trucks sold at a 14.9 million annual pace in April, down from a 15.2 million rate the prior month, according to data from Ward's Automotive Group. The average for the first quarter was 15.3 million, the strongest since the same period in 2008 and a sign the longer-term outlook remains positive.
Ford, General Motors and Chrysler said sales increased in April from the same month last year.
"Low borrowing costs and rising consumer wealth should continue to support spending growth going forward," Jenny Lin, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford's senior U.S. economist, said on a May 1 conference call.
A drop in receipts at service stations restrained the gains. The decrease probably reflected lower gasoline prices because the data aren't adjusted for inflation.
A gallon of regular gasoline averaged $3.55 in April, lower than March's $3.69. The price peaked at a four-month high of $3.79 on February 26, according to AAA.
The figure used to calculate gross domestic product, which excludes autos, gasoline and building materials, climbed 0.5 percent after a 0.1 percent increase in the previous month.