Resilient Consumer Gives Retail Sales Biggest Boost in 16 Months

Consumers brushed off rising gasoline prices and slumping home sales to storm the malls in May, pushing retail sales up by the largest amount in 16 months.

The Commerce Department reported that retail sales surged by 1.4 percent last month, compared to April, double the increase that analysts had been expecting. Retail sales had fallen by 0.1 percent in April.

The May strength was widespread with auto dealers, department stores, specialty clothing stores and hardware stores enjoying an especially good month.

Sales would have been strong even without last month's big jump in gasoline prices, which saw prices top $3.20 per gallon. Excluding sales at gasoline stations, overall retail sales would still have been up 1.2 percent.

The strong showing caught analysts by surprise. They had been forecasting a more moderate rebound of 0.7 percent.

The increase should ease fears that consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of the economy, could falter in coming months under the impact of the surge in gasoline prices, the significant correction in housing and recent increases in interest rates.

The government report painted a more optimistic picture of consumer spending than last week's report from the nation's big chain stores, which reported moderate gains in their survey of same-store sales after a dismal April, a month that had been hurt by bad weather and the fact that Easter came early this year.

The 1.4 percent increase in May sales was the biggest one-month advance since a 3.3 percent surge in January 2006. It left sales at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $377.9 billion in May.