WASHINGTON — Consumers are giving a modest lift to the economy.
They spent more on trucks, electronics and building supplies in October to boost retail sales for the fifth straight month.
The gains provide an encouraging start for the October-December quarter. Still, consumers might not be able to sustain their spending growth if unemployment remains high and pay raises scant.
"The consumer has to come through this holiday season if we are going to get back to more decent growth rates, and the early readings are those households have hit the stores quite strongly," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors.
Retail sales in October rose 0.5 percent over September's level, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. Healthy auto sales helped. Even without autos, sales rose by the most since March.
And excluding autos and sales at gas stations, sales rose 0.7 percent, also the biggest increase since March.
October retail sales were 7.2 percent higher than in October 2010. Internet and catalog sales have risen more than 11 percent since then. Consumers also spent more on sporting goods and at hobby and bookstores.
Auto sales have also rebounded since the Japan earthquake and tsunami. The 0.4 percent rise in October from September followed a 4.2 percent surge the previous month. Sales increased 7 percent from the same month last year.
People are also buying more electronics and appliances. Sales at those stores surged 3.7 percent in October, the biggest monthly gain for that group in nearly two years.
Chris G. Christopher, senior economist at IHS Global Insight, said the launch of the Apple iPhone 4S helped drive those sales.
"People are splurging a little bit here and there," Christopher said, who cautioned that weak income growth will remain a drag on spending next year.
David Hauck said sales at the children's store he owns with his wife in Boston have been up almost every month this year. In October, they rose 8 percent.
He suspects many people want to keep spending on their children, no matter how bad the economy gets.
Hauck and his wife have adjusted their inventory to focus on what people need. More baby supplies, fewer toys.
"Maybe they're cutting back in other ways," he said. "But they know they're going to have a crib or stroller for many years."
General merchandise stores, which include Walmart and Target, reported flat sales in October after a modest increase in September.