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Retail sales make surprising gain in February

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Washington, D.C. Retail sales edged up 0.3% in February, surprising economists who had predicted that the month’s major snowstorms would prevent consumers from getting out to shop.

The Commerce Department said Friday that the 0.3% rise in retail sales surpassed expectations that sales would decline by 0.2%.

The overall gain was held back by a 2% decline in auto sales, reflecting in part the recall problems at Toyota. Excluding autos, sales rose 0.8%, far better than the 0.1% 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 posted a 0.9% gain, their biggest increase in nearly two years.

Economists say they 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% in February compared with a year ago, the biggest gain since November 2007, the month before the recession began. That marked the third consecutive increase.

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

The retail sales report Friday showed that sales at general merchandise stores rose by 1% in February after a 1.3% rise in January.