WASHINGTON – U.S. consumers bounced back in March and bought more cars, furniture and appliances after three months of declining retail sales.
The Commerce Department said retail sales rose 0.6 percent last month, the largest increase since November. Auto sales jumped 2 percent, the most in six months.
Sales at retailers slipped in the first two months of this year as consumers pulled back after heavy spending during the winter holidays. Last month's figures suggest Americans are returning to more free-spending ways. Easter holiday purchases also likely lifted spending. Economists predict that healthy consumer confidence, steady job gains and the impact of tax cuts will fuel solid spending growth in the months ahead.
Sales rose at grocery stores, restaurants and bars, and drugstores. They fell at home and garden stores, clothing shops and sporting goods stores.
Online retail sales increased 0.8 percent in March and have risen nearly 10 percent compared with a year ago. That's more than double the overall retail sales gain in the past 12 months of 4.5 percent.
Retail sales are closely watched by economists because they provide an early read on consumer spending, the principal driver of the U.S. economy.
Store purchases account for about one-third of U.S. consumer spending, while spending on services such as haircuts and phone plans makes up the rest.
Builder index dips
Homebuilder confidence slid for the fourth consecutive month with steadily rising mortgage rates and sky-high home prices putting ownership out of reach for more and more Americans.
The National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo builder sentiment index for April, released Monday, fell one point to 69.
Any reading above 50 indicates more builders see sales conditions as good rather than poor, but it's the most extended decline since the run-up to the housing bust.