The 1.9 percent increase in retail sales in September was more than twice what most economists had predicted.
A few analysts said that the amount of the increase was proof that a broader economic recovery had taken hold, despite the high unemployment and business closures. Others say these gains may be fleeting.
It was the fifth straight month that retail sales had increased, and the spending patterns also show that even as virus cases grew across much of the country last month, people continued to venture out and spend more. Here are some highlights:
Strong auto sales were the largest factor in the spending increase. Low interest rates continued to encourage people to buy cars and trucks. Vehicle sales rose 3.6 percent from August, as more Americans who are forsaking air travel during the pandemic upgraded their cars or bought one for the first time. Gasoline sales also increased slightly, suggesting that more people were driving more as schools, offices and businesses reopened.
A roughly 11 percent increase in clothing and department stores sales was another driver of the overall spending rise. Some of that can be attributed to back-to-school spending, which typically happens early in the summer. Still, some economists were baffled by the strength in the department store business at a time when many Americans who are still employed are working remotely and have no need for new office attire.
Sales of health and beauty products, which seemed less necessary in the heart of the lockdowns this spring, increased 1.5 percent in September.
But some areas that were strong when pandemic-induced lockdowns forced Americans to remain in their homes showed signs of weakness.
Grocery sales surged at the start of the pandemic, causing panic among shoppers and record profits for food retailers. But things have normalized since then and sales at grocery stores were flat in September.
In a similar vein, electronic sales fell slightly, after recording big gains in the earlier months of the lockdowns when people were upgrading their home offices or buying new devices to entertain their stir-crazy children.