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Retail sales buoy hopes for economy (+video)

Retail sales rise 0.8 percent in July, the most since February. Every major category of retail sales show improvement.

By Anne D'Innocenzio and Martin CrutsingerAP Business Writers / August 15, 2012

In this July photo, shoppers in New York pass signs for discounted clothing sales. US retail sales rose in July by the largest amount in five months, buoyed by more spending on autos, furniture, and clothing.

Fay Abuelgasim/AP/File

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WASHINGTON

Americans increased their retail spending in July by the most in five months, opening their wallets after a frugal spring and offering hope that the slumping economy may rebound in the second half of the year.

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Retail sales are picking up because of pent-up demand from consumers.

Retail spending rose in every major category, from electronics and sporting goods to furniture, building supplies and garden equipment. The report from the government followed one earlier this month that showed hiring strengthened in July.

Overall retail sales rose 0.8 percent from June to July, the Commerce Department said. It was the sharpest increase since February, and it followed three months of declines.

The stepped-up spending was evident in a flurry of retail earnings reports for the second quarter, which ended in late July.

Home Depot, the nation's largest home improvement retailer, said healthy sales of paint, bathroom accessories and kitchen installations helped lift its net income 12 percent.

Macy's raised its annual earnings guidance last week after reporting a 16 percent increase in net income in the second quarter. Macy's executives specifically cited a pickup in their teen clothing business, which had been weak.

TJX Cos., which sells discounted brand names under such store banners as T.J. Maxx and HomeGoods, said its second-quarter net income jumped 21 percent on better same-store sales.

"People are spending a little more and feeling a little better about the economy," said James Donnelly, a salesassociate at Boston-based Tadpole, which sells infant wear, children's clothing and toys.

Donnelly says he's seen an increase in business and traffic in recent weeks. The store has run 40 percent discounts on summer merchandise. Shoppers are also buying some back-to-school items, like backpacks and clothing.

Americans appear to be taking their cues from the economy's modest but steady improvements.

Employers added 163,000 jobs in July, the best month for job growth since February. Home prices are up. The value of U.S. exports reached a record high last month. U.S. consumers are expressing more confidence. And stock indexes are near their highs for the year.

"I am looking for a better second half of the year, in part because I think business will become more confident, and they will increase their hiring," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors.

Naroff predicts the government will revise growth in the April-June quarter to an annual rate of 2 percent, up from the 1.5 percent reported last month. He predicts growth will then accelerate to 2.6 percent in the July-September quarter and 3.3 percent in the final three months of the year.

Still, the overall economy remains subpar with the presidential and congressional elections less than three months away. Unemployment is high at 8.3 percent. Consumer spending on goods and services, which drives roughly 70 percent of growth, grew by only 1.5 percent in the April-June quarter, the weakest pace in a year.

Some economists cautioned that part of the July increase in retail spending was inevitable after consumers cut spending in each of the months in the April-June quarter. Consumers will likely sustain their spending increases only if hiring continues to strengthen, they said.

In the meantime, many Americans remain anxious about the job market, slow wage gains and high debts.

"Consumers hunkered down all through the spring, and then they came out in July and decided to do some overdue spending," said Chris Christopher, a senior economist at IHS Global Insight. "But until we see more months of spending gains, we should be very cautious about how we evaluate the situation."

A brighter outlook for the economy could make the Federal Reserve hold off on taking further action to boost growth when its policy committee meets in September.

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