--Warmer weather, iPads may have helped boost retail figures
--New York's Empire State index drops on slowing shipment growth and falling unfilled orders.
--U.S. home builders' confidence slips for the first time in seven months
(Recasts, wraps economic data and adds analyst comment.)
By Jeffrey Sparshott And Eric Morath
Americans spent more on home improvement, gasoline, cars and electronics in March, an indication of steady consumer confidence despite some mixed economic signals.
Retail and food service sales increased 0.8% from February to a seasonally adjusted $411.07 billion, the Commerce Department reported Monday. Sales were up 6.5% year-to-year.
That beat expectations. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had forecast a 0.3% monthly gain.
"Consumers are back in a big way," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi.
Separate reports out Monday were mixed.
New York's Empire State index, which gauges manufacturing conditions in the state, dropped to 6.56 in April from 20.21 in March as purchasing managers reported slowing shipment growth and falling unfilled orders.
U.S. home builders' confidence in the housing market slipped in April for the first time in seven months, as consumers held off on purchases. The National Association of Home Builders said its housing market index was 25 this month.
And U.S. business inventories increased by 0.6% in February as stockpiles kept pace with rising sales.
The retail-sales figures showed broad-based gains despite higher gasoline prices, which can sap consumers' purchasing power. Unseasonably warm weather may have helped to get Americans started on home projects, on to car dealers' lots and into clothing shops.
The numbers also reflect the popularity of Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) gadgets. "The release of the new Apple iPad in the middle of March and the lower price on the iPad 2 resulted in the strongest gains in electronic store sales since October, when Apple released the latest version of the iPhone," said Chris Christopher, senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight.
Motor-vehicle and parts sales rose 0.9% last month. Excluding autos, retail sales climbed 0.8% in March, after rising 0.9% the previous month.
Retail sales in February rose a revised 1.0%, compared with a previously reported 1.1%.
Consumer spending, up for 10 consecutive months, is a big driver of economic growth. High unemployment and a chronically weak housing market have made consumers cautious through much of the recovery. And policy makers at the Federal Reserve and elsewhere have worried that consumer demand might not be strong enough to sustain recent gains.
One notable headwind has been higher gasoline prices, which can sap consumer purchasing power. Gasoline prices crept higher through the end of March, ending the month at an average of $3.973 a gallon, compared with $3.358 at the start of the year.
Monday's report showed sales at gasoline stations climbed 1.1% from the previous month, and 7.6% on the year.
Excluding gasoline, retail sales climbed 0.7% last month.
-By Jeffrey Sparshott and Eric Morath, Dow Jones Newswires;
--Alan Zibel and Jamila Trindle contributed to this article.