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Associated Press photos
A sign advertises a clearance on shoes at a Pittsburgh clothier. Sales at U.S. general merchandise stores rose 1.9 percent in March, the strongest one-month gain since March 2007. Many analysts expect the surge to last through year-end.

US retail sales surge 1.1% amid spring thaw

A pedestrian passes a J. Crew store in the Shadyside shopping district of Pittsburgh. U.S. retail sales in March rose 1.1 percent, the best showing since September 2012.

– U.S. retail sales in March rose by the largest amount in 18 months, led by strong gains in sales of autos, furniture and a number of other products.

The 1.1 percent jump reported by the Commerce Department on Monday was the best showing since September 2012. The government also revised February to a 0.7 percent gain, more than double its previous estimate.

Sales had fallen in January and December.

Sales of autos climbed 3.1 percent, while sales at general merchandise stores, a category that covers retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target and department stores, increased 1.9 percent, the strongest one-month gain since March 2007, before the country fell into recession.

The strong March gain provides more evidence that the economy is emerging from a harsh winter with some momentum.

Economists believe that warmer weather will encourage people to make purchases that they had not during a wave of winter storms. Consumers account for 70 percent of economic activity, so spending on that front is critical in fueling a stronger recovery.

“Rising wealth, shrinking debt burdens and improving labor markets are helping American shoppers shake off the winter blahs,” said Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

Guatieri said he believed overall economic growth slowed to a 1.2 percent annual rate in the January-March quarter but will rebound to growth of 3.3 percent in the second quarter.

Many analysts believe a strong rebound in the current quarter will last through the rest of the year with growth averaging around 3 percent in the second half.

For March, sales in a core category of products that feed into the government’s calculations of overall growth rose by 0.9 percent, more than double the 0.5 percent gain in February.

In addition to the strong showing for auto dealers and general merchandise stores, sales increased by solid amounts at furniture stores, hardware stores and clothing stores.

Stronger growth is expected to translate into more hiring and an improving labor market.

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