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Shoppers push up retail sales 1.3% in April

Shoppers browsing at the Del Amo Mall.
Shoppers browsing at the Del Amo Mall.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

After a lackluster start to the year, retailers got a bit of a break in April.

Retail sales last month rose 1.3% from the previous month to $453.4 billion, the Commerce Department said Friday. That was the fastest pace of growth since March of last year.

“Consumers spent despite the fact that gasoline prices are rising and job growth has slackened,” said Sung Won Sohn, an economist at Cal State Channel Islands.

But that doesn’t mean Americans are ready to start spending with an open hand after so many months of caution. Many department stores and mall-based retailers have struggled this year, causing their stock prices to plunge.

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“Consumers’ spending habits are hard to change,” Sohn said. “Recently there have been indications that consumer confidence may have crested.”

Stripping out the volatile motor-vehicle-and-parts sector, retail sales grew by 0.8%.

Economists said that was good news following a sharp slowdown in job growth in April, which raised worries about the overall health of the U.S. economy.

For retailers to see long-term strength, however, many economists said wages in the U.S. need to rise.

“The consumer continues to face many of the same pressures that resulted in a significant pullback in spending January to March, including modest income growth and still a heavy reliance by employers on temporary, part-time and low-cost labor,” said Lindsey Piegza, chief economist at Stifel Fixed Income.

In April, a bounce-back in auto sales helped bolster retail sales overall. Eleven out of 13 categories saw a boost last month, with motor vehicle and parts dealers reporting a 3.2% increase.

Non-store retailers, which include e-commerce retailers such as Amazon, posted a 2.1% increase. Health and personal care shops rose 0.9%. Clothing and accessories stores reported a 1% jump.

Building materials and garden suppliers saw a 1% decline, while general merchandise stores, which include department stores, reported flat sales.

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Department stores Macy’s, Kohl’s and Nordstrom this week all reported disappointing first-quarter earnings that missed forecasts.

The Commerce Department also revised numbers for March 2016, saying retail sales fell 0.3% that month; it had previously said they had declined 0.4%.

shan.li@latimes.com

Follow @ByShanLi on Twitter

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