WASHINGTON — Retail sales unexpectedly rose in April, reflecting broad-based gains that may ease concern 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 at the pump 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 biggest U.S. auto group.
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. The data for March and February were revised up.
Retailers that sell discounted name-brand clothing and home goods were among those showing the best results. Same-store sales jumped 8 percent last month from the same time in 2012 at TJX, the owner of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls stores, while Ross Stores Inc. had a 7 percent gain. Results at both chains exceeded analysts' forecasts.
May is "off to a strong start," Sherry Lang, senior vice-president of global communications at Framingham, Mass.- based TJX Cos., said on a May 9 sales call. "It was nice to see strength in apparel as well as home categories across the board."
Chains that didn't do so well included L Brands Inc. The operator of the Victoria's Secret lingerie chain reported a 2 percent rise in April sales at stores open at least a year, missing analysts' average estimate.
Household spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy, will grow at a 1.8 percent annualized rate this quarter after expanding at a 3.2 percent pace in the first three months of the year, the most since the end of 2010, according to the median forecast of economists survey by Bloomberg this month.
Economists marked down forecasts on expectations an increase in taxes would start to bite. At the beginning of 2013, the payroll tax reverted to its 2010 rate of 6.2 percent after holding at 4.2 percent for two years.
Advances in equity prices, which mainly benefit wealthier Americans, are helping to underpin consumer spending. U.S. stocks are in the fifth year of a bull market amid better-than- forecast corporate earnings and record stimulus by the Federal Reserve.
Retail sales may also keep getting help from the housing market. Residential real-estate prices rose in the year ended in February by the most since May 2006, according to the S&P/Case- Shiller index of house values in 20 cities.
Better job growth would help spur purchases and put more of the 11.7 million unemployed Americans back to work. Payrolls expanded by 165,000 workers in April after a 138,000 gain in March, according to the Labor Department. They rose by 236,500 a month on average from November through February.