WASHINGTON — Consumer spending rebounded strongly in September, as sales at clothing and accessories stores, department stores and general merchandisers rose across the board.

The gains in the apparel sector and the largest jump in auto sales in nearly three years fueled retail sales as a whole, which rose an unexpected 1.5 percent for the month, according to the Commerce Department’s retail sales report. Retail sales have been uneven over the past several months, but September’s number represented a substantial gain.

In August, all retail sales fell 0.3 percent, following a 0.8 percent gain in July and a 0.5 percent decline in June.

Retail sales at clothing and accessories stores rose a seasonally adjusted 0.8 percent in September and were 4 percent higher year-over-year. Department store sales, which have been in a pattern of long-term decline, gained 0.9 percent in September but were down 1.3 percent against a year ago. Sales at general merchandise stores rose 1.1 percent last month and were 5.4 percent over a year ago.

“Though many analysts had written off September as sluggish, consumers behaved otherwise,” Rosalind Wells, chief economist at the National Retail Federation, said in a statement. “Consumer behavior has been erratic this year, but shoppers are starting to show signs of life.”

In addition to apparel sales, other retail sectors with a strong showing included electronics and appliance stores, which posted a 0.5 percent increase last month and rose 4.4 percent year-over-year, and building material and dealers of garden equipment and supplies, which had a 1.4 percent sales gain in September and were 14 percent over a year ago.

Steve Spiwak, senior economist at Retail Forward, said, “Today’s report indicates the consumer is alive and well. The results are in line with what we expect for the holidays.”

Spiwak said teen apparel retailers, such as American Eagle Outfitters and PacSun, have been driving a lot of the growth in same-store sales results.

Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Research, said he expected a good report, but September’s retail sales were “better than expected,” due primarily to stronger auto sales connected to more aggressive incentive programs. Such programs were one of the reasons General Motors reported a loss in its U.S. automobile operations on Thursday, however.

This story first appeared in the October 18, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Steidtmann noted there was a “very strong increase” in home improvement sales as well, reflecting the rebuilding process in Florida, after being battered by four hurricanes this summer and fall.