The three-month moving average was up 4.8% over the same period a year ago, and the results come as NRF is forecasting that 2018 retail sales will grow between 3.8% and 4.4% over 2017. Clothing stores suffered a 0.8 percent drop in sales in March, but were likewise up for the year, by 1.8 percent.
Excluding the volatile auto sector, sales were up 0.2 per cent, matching an analyst forecast and the same increase recorded in February.
Sales at gasoline stations declined 0.3% during March after growing 0.1% in February. The slowdown follows a 4 percent jump in consumer spending in the final three months of last year, the strongest gain in three years. Excluding both autos and gasoline, sales rose 0.3 per cent. A prior report showed purchases of cars and light trucks rose to a 17.4 million annual rate so far this year. "People were so built up on the economy and tax cuts, but our view is that it's more steady than acceleration".
Economic growth estimates for the January-March quarter are running below a 2 percent rate.
"We believe those forces will remain supportive for consumption in the second quarter, and after today's number remain comfortable with prospects for a rebound in household outlays this quarter".
Grocery and beverage stores were up 5.9% year-over-year and up 0.2% from February.
The higher spending could support GDP growth in the first quarter, which is expected to be sluggish.
Total sales grew at a 0.6% month-on-month pace in March to reach $509.4bn (consensus: 0.2%), according to the Department of Commerce. Sales at restaurants and bars gained 0.4 percent.
Sporting goods stores were down 0.9% year-over-year and down 1.8% from February seasonally adjusted.
"This month's decline in the Empire State six-month forward index may reflect trade-related uncertainties and the associated volatility of stocks, or other factors", said Roiana Reid, an economist at Berenberg Capital Markets in NY.