WASHINGTON — Consumers appeared to shake off the harsh winter in March and stepped up their purchases of everything from autos to apparel, boosting overall retail sales to their highest gain in more than a year and a half, the Commerce Department’s monthly retail sales report showed Monday.

In the overall economy, retail sales rose 1.1 percent to $433.9 billion, surpassing economists’ expectations. It was the largest overall retail sales increase since September 2012 and was primarily driven by a 3.1 percent spike in auto-related sales, although the gains were seen across many sectors.

“It is clear that consumer spending and confidence weathered the unseasonably colder winter and shoppers are ready to open their wallets for big-ticket items,” said Chris G. Christopher, director of consumer economics at IHS Global Insight. “Our real consumer spending growth for the first quarter is now standing at 2.1 percent [it was 1.9 percent prior to the new report] due to the strong showing of retail sales in March and the upward revisions to January and February.”

General merchandise stores sales, a category that includes department stores and discounters, increased a seasonally adjusted 1.9 percent to $55.8 billion last month compared with February. Department stores posted a 0.5 percent increase in sales to $14.2 billion, while apparel and accessories stores notched a 1 percent gain to $21 billion last month.

“Consumer spending rebounded at a healthy rate, potentially even a strong rate,” said Scott Hoyt, director of consumer economics at Moody’s Analytics. “It appears it is a rebound from the winter doldrums and that retailers at least partially recouped some of the weakness that we have likely seen as a result of the weather.”

Hoyt said the 1.9 percent increase in general merchandise store sales was the highest since March 2007 and attributed it to “payback” from the severe winter, which impacted consumers’ ability to shop at stores. Year-to-year, sales at general merchandise stores were 1.9 percent higher, while specialty store sales were up 2.1 percent. Sales at department stores were down 3.4 percent for the 12 months.

“Improving economic conditions and consumer confidence should push consumers to return to spending habits this spring,” said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation. “Consumers released some pent-up demand in March after two consecutive months of harsh winter weather that not only hampered employment opportunities, but also retail sales. We remain optimistic that retail sales will continue their positive march this spring.”

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