- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — Retail sales posted a surprising increase in February as consumers did not let major snowstorms stop them from storming the malls. The advance, the biggest since November, provided hope that the recovery from the Great Recession is gaining momentum.

The Commerce Department said Friday that retail sales rose 0.3 percent in February, surpassing expectations that sales would decline by 0.2 percent.

The overall gain was held back by a 2 percent decline in auto sales, reflecting in part the recall problems at Toyota. Excluding autos, sales rose 0.8 percent, far better than the 0.1 percent rise outside of autos that economists had forecast.

The gains outside of autos were widespread with sales rising at department stores, furniture stores, appliance shops and hardware stores. Restaurants and bars enjoyed a 0.9 percent advance, their biggest gain in nearly two years, possibly an indication that snowbound Americans decided to visit their local eating and drinking establishments to get a break from their homes.

“The economy is starting to accelerate,” said Christopher Rupkey, an economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York. “The snowstorms couldn’t keep consumers away from the cash registers and neither could the constraints imposed by tightening credit card terms and near double-digit unemployment.”

In a separate report, the Commerce Department said that business inventories were basically unchanged in January while total business sales rose 0.6 percent, the eighth straight monthly increase. Economists are hoping that the increases in sales will drive businesses to begin restocking their depleted store shelves on a sustained basis. That restocking would boost production and provide increased support for an economic recovery.

Consumer spending is being watched carefully because it accounts for 70 percent of total economic activity. Economists have been worried that the economic recovery they believe began last summer could falter if consumer spending begins to lag. The better-than-expected February gain could ease those concerns.

Economists are hoping that businesses, which have shed 8.4 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007, will soon start rehiring laid off workers. That would give households the incomes they need to support spending growth.

Some analysts had suspected that the February retail sales report could offer a surprise on the upside given encouraging news last week from the nation’s big retail chains.

The International Council of Shopping Centers had reported that sales jumped 3.7 percent in February compared to a year ago, the biggest gain since November 2007, the month before the recession began. That marked the third consecutive increase.

Shoppers shrugged off major snowstorms to visit a broad array of merchants from luxury retailer Nordstrom Inc. to middlebrow Macy’s Inc. to discounter Target Corp. All three chains reported solid sales increases that beat analysts expectations.

The Commerce report showed that the 0.3 percent February gain followed a 0.1 percent rise in January, which had originally been reported as a stronger increase of 0.5 percent.

The retail sales report Friday showed that sales at general merchandise stores, the category that includes department stores and big discounters such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., rose by 1 percent in February after a 1.3 percent rise in January. Sales at appliance stores were up 3.7 percent while sales at hardware stores rose by 0.5 percent. Sales at gasoline stations posed a 0.3 percent rise.

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