- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Consumers the economy's lifeblood are keeping the recovery on track. They shopped with more gusto in April, pushing up retail sales by 1.2 percent, the best performance in six months.
The latest sales snapshot, released by the Commerce Department yesterday, raised hopes among economists that shoppers would continue to keep their pocketbooks and wallets open to support the recovery in the months ahead.
"Consumers, for the most part, lack neither confidence nor money, and as long as they maintain even moderate growth in spending, the economy will keep chugging along," said Bill Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock.
The 1.2 percent advance was the biggest gain since a record 6.2 percent in October and was double what most economists were expecting. The stronger-than-expected performance came after a tightfisted March, when retail sales inched up by 0.1 percent.
Consumers, whose spending accounted for two-thirds of all economic activity in the United States, bought more cars, building materials, garden supplies and health care and beauty products last month. They dined out more, too.
Higher prices at the gasoline pump also contributed to the increase in overall retail sales in April. Even excluding sales at gasoline stations, retail sales were solid.
The strong showing last month came despite a jump in the unemployment rate to an eight-year high of 6 percent.
Yesterday's report showed that car sales went up 1.9 percent in April, after 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.
Sales at gasoline stations rose 2 percent, after a 4 percent increase. Increases in recent months reflect higher prices at the pump.
At bars and restaurants, sales rose 0.6 percent, after a flat showing. Sales of electronics and appliances nudged up 0.1 percent, after holding steady in March.
Some weak spots were evident. Sales of furniture and home furnishings dropped by 1.4 percent, after a 0.1 percent decline the previous month. Sporting goods stores saw sales dip 0.1 percent, after a 0.6 percent increase.
Concern about how consumers, who kept spending during the recession, would hold up during the recovery was a factor in the Federal Reserve's decision May 7 to keep short-term interest rates now at 40-year lows unchanged.

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