The Census Bureau reported today that U.S. consumers set another new all-time monthly record by spending $389.3 billion on retail and food services in March, which was the ninth straight monthly increase starting last July. Without adjusting for inflation, this was the fourth straight month since the recession started in December 2007 that consumer spending has surpassed the pre-recession, previous record-high retail sales volume of of $380.0 billion set back in November 2007. March retail sales were 2.5% above the pre-recession level, and retail sales in the first quarter of 2011 were 8.1% above the same period last year.
The highest-ever retail spending amount in March was 7.1% higher than the year-earlier level, and spending in every category except department stores (-3.3%) registered annual gains last month, with especially strong gains in auto sales (+10%), miscellaneous stores (+7.3%) and nonstore retailers (+12.4%). Gasoline sales in March were up by 16.7% compared to a year ago, and were responsible for a large part of the overall March gain in retail sales.
Gas prices today are about $1 higher than a year ago, but don't yet seem to be slowing down economic growth considerably. Maybe it's because at the average fuel efficiency of 33.7 m.p.g. for new passenger cars, a $1 increase per gallon would translate to only about $350 in higher gas costs on an annual basis, at the average driving distance of 12,000 miles per year.