March 13, 2014 8:45 AM, EDT

Retail Sales in US Increase for First Time in Three Months

WalMart Corp./Flickr

Retail sales in the U.S. rose in February for the first time in three months, a sign consumers are starting to shake off the effects of the harsh weather that had curbed spending even more than previously estimated.

The 0.3% advance followed a 0.6% drop in January that was larger than initially reported, Commerce Department figures showed today in Washington. The median forecast of 84 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for a 0.2% advance. The rebound in demand was broad-based with nine of 13 major categories showing increases.

Americans ventured out to shop even as colder-than-normal temperatures and severe snowstorms blanketed parts of the United States, showing the economic expansion is regaining momentum. Continued improvement in the labor market and gains in wages will be needed to sustain household purchases that are being spurred by rising stocks and home values.

“We’ll see a little bit more traction on the consumer side as the weather improves and people get a little bit more willing to leave the house,” said Russell Price, senior economist at Ameriprise Financial Inc. in Detroit and the best forecaster of retail sales over the past two years, according to Bloomberg calculations. “There is building pent-up demand across the economy.”

Estimates in the Bloomberg survey ranged from a 0.2% drop to a 0.6% gain. The reading for January was revised down from an initially reported 0.4% decrease. December sales were also weaker, now showing a 0.3% drop compared with a previously reported 0.1% decrease.

The gains in retail sales last month were led by non-store retailers, which include Internet stores, indicating some customers were still struggling with poor weather and preferred to shop from the comfort of home. The category that includes purchases made online climbed 1.2% in February, the most since July 2013.

Other areas showing gains in February included sporting goods, where purchases increased 2.5%, and department stores, which showed a 0.7% gain. Both advances were the biggest since January 2013.

The South Atlantic region of the United States experienced the most snowfall during the second week of February since 1983, and New England registered the most in 20 years during the period, according to weather-data provider Berwyn, Pa.-based Planalytics Inc. said. February’s winter blitz followed the chilliest January in three years.