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Retail sales post best gain in 5 months

The American consumer boosted retail sales in February by the most since September 2011, helped by strong auto sales and higher gas prices, government data showed on Tuesday.

The Commerce Department said retail sales rose 1.1 percent last month, up from 0.6 percent in January, which was also revised upward. Economists had expected a gain of 1.0 percent in February.

Vehicle sales provided a big chunk of the increase. Auto sales rose 1.6 percent, showing that American consumers have a pent-up appetite for new vehicles, even as they paid more for gasoline at the pump. Gas prices rose 20 cents last month, according to government data.

"The big thing for the consumer is that the labor market has improved and there's income growth. Things look better than six months ago," said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at Pierpont Securities in Stamford, Connecticut.

"There is a risk if gasoline prices continue to rise. That will bite into household budgets."

Sales at gasoline stations surged 3.3 percent, the biggest gain since March last year, after rising 1.9 percent in January. Excluding autos and gasoline, sales rose 0.6 percent in February after increasing 1.0 percent the prior month. Gasoline accounted for 11.5 percent of retail sales in February.

Outside autos and gas stations, details of the report were fairly upbeat, suggesting recent solid gains in employment were supporting consumer spending.

Last month, clothing store receipts jumped 1.8 percent, the largest increase since November 2010, while sales at building materials and garden equipment suppliers advanced 1.4 percent.

Unseasonably mild weather has boosted the volume of traffic to shopping malls even though retailers have had to offer huge discounts to clear shelves of winter clothing and other merchandise.

So-called core retail sales, which exclude autos, gasoline and building materials, were up 0.5 percent after advancing 1.0 percent in January.

Core sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of the government's gross domestic product report.

Sales at restaurants and bars rose 0.8 percent, while receipts at sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores increased 1.0 percent. Sales of electronics and appliances rose 1.0 percent, while receipts at furniture stores fell 1.2 percent.

Reuters contributed to this report.