Surging sales by automotive dealers overcame a lackluster performance by clothing and department stores in March to push total retail sales up by more than 2 per cent for the second month in a row, the government reported yesterday.

The Commerce Department said retail sales - after adjustment for seasonal variations - advanced by $1.4 billion, or 2.4 billion. That compared with an upward revised 2.7 per cent advance in February and a 2.1 per cent drop in January. The figures were further confirmation that the economy continues to expand at a healthy pace despite the depressing effects of January's cold winter weather.

Commerce raised its estimate of February sales by $800 million from the preliminary assessment of $57.6 billion in last month's report.

Sales for the first 3 months of this year were 11 per cent ahead of the first 3 months of last year and 4 per cent ahead of the final 3 months of last year.

The Commerce figures showed that sales by automotive dealers advanced by 5 per cent in March to $12.6 billion. Sales of clothing and department stores remained the same.

Excluding autos March sales were up by 1.7 per cent compared with a 2.5 per cent February increase on the same basis.

Sale of durable goods - which include autos - rose by 4 per cent in March to an adjusted $20.54 billion after increasing by 3.8 per cent in February.

Sales of nondurables were an adjusted $39.02 billion, up 1.6 per cent last month following a2.1 per cent increase in February.