WASHINGTON — Buyers returned to auto showrooms last month, and other retailers rang up modestly higher sales in all categories, boosting retail sales in February by a healthy 4.1%, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.
The department said that seasonally adjusted sales totaled $122.3 billion last month, compared to $117.5 billion in January. Auto sales were up 14.4%, to $26.9 billion.
The figures showed a strong rebound from a bleak January, when auto sales plummeted and sent total sales into a nose dive. The department said Thursday that the dive was even steeper than originally reported.
Total sales plunged a record 7.4% in January, not the 5.8% it had estimated earlier, the department said. Auto sales dropped a record 27.7%, not the 22.4% reported last month.
Against that background, economists differed on whether the February sales figures indicated a recovery or only a feeble spasm.
"When you put it in perspective, it's not impressive at all," said Michael K. Evans, president of Evans Economics Inc. of Washington. "Consumer spending remains weak." Lawrence Chimerine, president of Chase Econometrics of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., concurred. "The main conclusion, when you average out the ups and downs, is that consumer spending is growing much more slowly . . . compared to early in the recovery," he said.
David Wyss, chief financial economist for Data Resources Inc. of Lexington, Mass., pointed to gains throughout all retail categories and called the February advance "extremely strong."
"The consumer is still spending over his head and shows every sign of continuing to do so," Wyss said.
Total automotive sales in February were $26.9 billion, compared to $23.5 billion in January and $32.5 billion in December, when total sales were $126.9 billion.
The swings in auto sales were predicted. The new tax law ended the sales tax deduction as of Jan. 1, so thousands of buyers took the plunge in December rather than in January to reap a small tax windfall.