March U.S. sales boost signals more optimism

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U.S. retail sales increased more than a half-percent last month, the U.S. Commerce Department said Monday -- a sign of greater-than-expected consumer confidence.

Retail sales were up 0.6 percent for March -- more than expected and a figure considered significant by most analysts.

The increase followed a 0.1 percent drop in February, which was the third of three consecutive months of decline. The results reinforce a Federal Reserve prediction that the declines were transitory, following increased spending after two hurricanes that struck the United States last year.

The March figure for retail control group sales, used to calculate gross domestic product but excluding food services, auto dealers, building materials stores and gasoline stations, gained 0.4 percent, as predicted.

Of 13 major retail categories itemized, eight showed increases. Sales at health and personal-care stores rose 1.4 percent and auto sales rose 2 percent, the most since September. A prior report showed purchases of cars and light trucks rose to a 17.4 million annual rate so far this year.

Consumer optimism is high due to factors like job market strength, rising wages, lower taxes and the receipt of tax refunds.

Gas station receipts fell by 0.3 percent in March -- the largest drop since July -- largely due to cheaper gasoline.

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