WASHINGTON -- After a tightfisted March, U.S. consumers splurged in April and pushed retail sales up by 1.2 percent, the biggest increase in six months.
The latest sales snapshot released by the Commerce Department Tuesday suggests that consumers -- the lifeblood of the economy -- are helping to support the budding economic recovery by keeping their pocketbooks and wallets open.
The April advance came after retail sales nudged up by 0.1 percent in March and was stronger than the 0.6 percent gain many analysts were forecasting.
Consumers, whose spending accounts for two-thirds of all economic activity in the United States, snapped up cars, building materials, garden supplies and health care and beauty products last month. They also ate out more.
Higher prices at the pump for gasoline also contributed to the increase in overall retail sales in April.
However, excluding sales at gasoline stations and at car dealerships -- which tend to bounce around from month to month -- retail sales still rose a solid 1 percent.
The 1.2 percent increase in retail sales last month was the biggest gain since a record 6.2 percent in October.
"Consumer will once again play Atlas and support the economic recovery," said economist Richard Yamarone, with Argus Research Corp.
The strong showing last month came despite the fact that the nation's unemployment rate jumped to an eight-year high of 6 percent during the month. And, there was unseasonably cold weather and the fact that Easter fell in March this year.
Tuesday's report showed that car sales went up 1.9 percent in April, following a 0.8 percent decline in March. Sales of building materials and garden supplies rose 2.7 percent, on top of a 1.7 percent gain.
At health and beauty stores, sales rose 1.9 percent, a turnaround from the 0.5 percent drop in March. Sales at clothing stores rose 0.7 percent, compared with a 0.3 percent dip. At department stores, sales increased 1.2 percent, after edging up 0.1 percent.
There were some weak spots. Sales of furniture and home furnishings dropped by 1.4 percent, following a 0.1 percent decline the previous month. Sporting goods stores saw sales dip 0.1 percent, after a 0.6 percent increase.