Purchases increased 1.6 percent last month, the most in four months, and gains for February and January were revised up, Commerce Department figures showed.
Companies from Target Corp. to Saks Inc. benefited last month from an early Easter, better weather and a pickup in hiring, indicating the expansion is no longer solely dependent on gains in manufacturing. A lack of inflation is one reason Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, who testifies before congress today, and other Federal Reserve policy makers will probably keep interest rates low in coming months.
Excluding autos, gasoline and building materials, which are the figures used to calculate gross domestic product, sales increased 0.5 percent after rising 1.2 percent in February.
Eleven of 13 major categories showed increases in sales last month, led by a 6.7 percent advance at auto dealers. Purchases of building materials jumped 3.1 percent, the most since November 2007, and receipts at clothing stores increased by the most in a year.
Dealerships saw a rebound last month after the February storms that pushed seasonal snowfall totals to records in parts of the eastern U.S. made some auto lots inaccessible.
Chain stores last month turned in their best year-over-year performance since 1999, industry figures showed last week. Gap Inc., Saks and TJX Cos. posted March sales gains that exceeded analysts’ estimates as warm weather and improving job prospects encouraged shoppers. The Easter holiday in early April may have resulted in more March sales, according to economists such as Julia Coronado at BNP Paribas in New York.
Home Depot Inc., the largest U.S. home-improvement retailer, is among companies hiring. The Atlanta-based merchant is adding store jobs for the first time in four years.