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Ahead of the Bell: US Retail Sales

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March 13, 2014 06:29 AM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Commerce Department reports on spending at retail businesses and restaurants in February. The report will be released at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Thursday.

SLIGHT GAIN: Economists expect that retail spending rose 0.2 percent last month, according to a survey by FactSet.

That would be a slight rebound after two straight months of declines, a possible signal that the economy is heating up again after a difficult winter.

The retail report offers a first look at February's consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of all economic activity. Many economists came into 2014 projecting that stronger consumer spending would cause growth to accelerate. But freezing weather across much of the country kept shoppers at home in January.

Retail sales dropped 0.4 percent in January. This followed a 0.1 percent decline in spending in December, when the holiday season usually leads people to splurge.

The February employment report suggested that the overall economy has regained momentum. Employers added 175,000 jobs last month after a pair of weak gains in the previous two months.

But retailers cut 4,100 workers in February. The losses were concentrated in electronics, department, sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores. The lay-offs show consumer spending has yet to pick up much speed.

Excluding motor vehicles, economists forecast a meager 0.1 percent increase in retail sales.

AUTO SALES STILL WEAK: Consumers bought just under 1.2 million new cars and trucks in February. That follows a 3 percent drop in January— the first year-over-year decline since August 2010.

General Motors, Ford and Toyota each reported sales declines for February. The country's top three automakers said sales began to recover in the second half of last month, when the weather improved.

So far this year, new vehicle sales have been on pace to reach a little more than 15 million for the year. In 2014, the industry sold 15.6 million cars and trucks. Economists forecast that auto purchases will approach 16 million this year.