WASHINGTON — U.S. retail sales grew sharply in October, marking the fourth straight monthly gain, as consumers flocked to auto showrooms and made more purchases online.
Sales for September and August were also revised higher.
Strong retail sales over the past few months have eased concerns about the U.S. sinking back into recession. Consumer spending is the largest contributor to the nation's economy.
Retail sales jumped 1.2 percent in October, the largest increase since March, the U.S. Commerce Department reported Monday.
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Excluding motor vehicles, however, retail sales rose a more modest 0.4 percent.
Economists surveyed by MarketWatch had forecast total sales to rise by 0.7 percent, or 0.4 percent excluding the volatile automotive segment. Auto sales often swing sharply from month to month and can mask underlying trends.
Sales between August and October have grown 6.3 percent compared with the same period of 2009.
Retail sales were revised to 0.7 percent growth in September, compared with an original reading of 0.6 percent growth, while August sales growth was revised up to 0.9 percent from 0.7 percent.
Analysts say the increase in retail sales reflects a gradually improving U.S. economy after a spring lull.
"We've established a nice solid uptrend at this point," said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Pierpont Securities. Yet he also said the economy is unlikely to show dramatic improvement until hiring accelerates and the nation's 9.6 percent unemployment rate shrinks.
Retail sales are closely watched by investors and economists for signs of whether the economy is growing or shrinking. Each month the government polls up to 5,000 firms that account for two-third of all U.S. retail sales.
The biggest increase in October occurred in the auto segment, as sales of vehicles and parts leaped 5 percent. Stanley said the gain was expected in light of previously reported auto sales.
Sales at building-supply stores, meanwhile, scored a 1.9 percent increase.
Sales at non-store retailers such as catalogs and online retailers posted a 1.0 percent increase.
Sales at stores catering to leisure-time activities, such as reading and music, also increased 1.0 percent. Usually in difficult economic times, consumers spend less on leisure and entertainment — things they do not need to buy.
Several retail sectors, however, did not draw as many shoppers. Sales at department stores, furniture and home stores, and electronic and appliance stores all fell 0.7 percent in October compared with the prior month. Also, sales at health and personal-care shops slipped 0.1 percent. All other retail sectors experienced moderate gains:
* Sales of clothing and accessories rose 0.7 percent.
* Sales at gas stations and grocery stores rose 0.3 percent.
* Sales at restaurants and bars increased 0.3 percent.
* Sales at general-merchandise stores were up 0.2 percent.