Led by a surge in auto purchases, retail sales rose 1 percent last month, rebounding from weather-depressed levels in January and February, the Commerce Deaprtment reported yesterday.
"It would really have been significant if they had not gone up after all that bad weather," said one analyst. "As it is, this doesn't tell us much one way or the other what the consumer is up to."
Carter administration economists are debating whether to try to slow down the economy by asking the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, and possibly by seeking limited credit controls that might reduce consumer buying of big ticket items like cars.
Auto sales rose to the second highest level in history last month-a 12.6 million-car annual rate seasonally adjusted-according to Townsend-Greenspan & Co., an economic consulting firm. That was second only to a 12.9-million-car rate in March 1973.
While not overwhelmingly strong, the advance report that March retail sales reached $71.8 billion was not a sign of any great weakness in consumer spending that might have headed off the tightening of policy that is under consideration.
The advance report for the previous month was revised downward by about $400 million to $71.1 billion, Commerce also reported. The revised figure for February is about the same as for last December, so that March sales were also only about 1 percent above those at the end of the year.
Except for autos, retail sales rose from $56.3 billion in February to $56.7 in March, with virtually all of that gain concentrated in durable goods stores. Building materials, hardware, garden supply and mobile home dealers reported about a $200 million increase over the month. Furniture, home furnishings, and equipment stores had more than a $100 million gain.
Non-durable-goods stores recorded very little increase in sales from month to month. Grocery store sales, despite large increases in food prices, actually fell slightly from $14.3 billion to $14.2 billion. Similarly, gasoline service station sales dipped from $5.6 billion to $5.4 billion in the face of sizable price hikes.
Total sales were 12 percent higher than in March 1978. Durable goods sales were up more strongly, 17 percent. Non-durable sales rose only 9 percent.
The surge in auto sales evidently was sparked by new fears about both the availability of gasoline and its sharply climbing price. CAPTION: Graph, Monthly Retail Sales, The Washington Post