WASHINGTON — U.S. consumers stepped up their spending on retail goods in September, a hopeful sign for the sluggish economy.
They spent more on automobiles, clothing and furniture last month to boost retail sales 1.1 percent, the Commerce Department said Friday. It was the largest gain in seven months.
Auto sales rose 3.6 percent to drive the overall increase. Still, excluding that category, sales gained a solid 0.6 percent.
The government also revised the August figures to show a 0.3 percent increase, up from its report of no gain.
Stronger consumer spending could help tamp down concerns that the economy is at risk of a recession.
The increase "shows that households are not completely down and out," said Paul Dales, senior U.S. economist for Capital Economics. He said the data correspond with an annual growth rate of 2 percent for increased consumer spending for July through September.
Dales cautioned that weak hiring will likely prevent consumers from spending at that rate on a month-to-month basis.
"Sales growth is unlikely to remain this strong," he said. "So, although a recession has become less likely, households still can't be relied on to drag the U.S. economy out of its continued malaise."
The jump in retail sales prompted some economists to boost their growth forecast for the July-September quarter. Dean Maki at Barclays Capital Research said his group raised its forecast to 2.5 percent, up from 2 percent.
The September gains were broad-based:
• Department stores sales increased 1.1 percent, a big turnaround from August, when sales had fallen 0.5 percent.
• A larger category of general merchandise stores, which includes big-chain retailers including Wal-Mart and Target, showed a 0.7 percent rise last month after no gain in August.
• Specialty clothing stores sales rose 1.3 percent, after a 0.4 percent August drop.
• Sales were up 1.1 percent at furniture stores but edged down a slight 0.1 percent at hardware stores.
• Gas station sales rose 1.2 percent.
The overall economy grew at an annual rate of 0.9 percent in the first six months of the year. That was the weakest growth since the recession ended in June 2009.
High unemployment and steep gasoline prices forced many consumers to cut back on spending in the spring. Without more jobs or higher pay increases, they are likely to keep spending cautiously.
In September, the economy generated 103,000 net jobs. That's enough to calm recession fears, but it is far from what is needed to lower the unemployment rate, which stayed at 9.1 percent for the third straight month.